Why not: “Fool me once and shame on me.”?


This post is a thought piece that lays out the question more than any answer.

There is an old adage: “Fool me once and shame on you, fool me twice and shame on me.”

Why do we need a second occurrence to learn enough to avoid danger or even better capture opportunity?

I am doing some work with a client who has asked me to help them more usefully factor uncertainty (and managing this exposure) in their business strategy. Their strategy is typical in that some parts are well known and understood by them (incremental growth and refinement of their current business activities); some parts are less known and understood by them and one area is a new endeavour  with no internal learning to draw upon. These last two areas are of course easily understood to expose the client to uncertainty in the sense that uncertainty is based upon our ignorance and/or cognitive limits.

The workshop on uncertainty will help them achieve two outcomes with attendant useful benefits:

  1. Tools for making some uncertainty visible (opaque). Being able to envisage and know where it is arising from helps us manage our exposure to it. N.B. the fundamental basis for uncertainty management is to control our exposure to such events (actually their consequences).
  2. principles for deciding how to manage our “exposure” so that we not only survive (the resiliency strategy) but also capitalize on the opportunities that such events create (antifragile – thanks to Nassim Taleb)

As uncertainty like events are by definition rare and unknown (at best opaque) then the learning from experience becomes a critical competence. This is where the question of how much experience do we have to have before we “clue in” that there is something going  on.

Many of us need repeated experiences before we decide that there is something worth paying attention to. A simple test to illustrate this is how we treat outliers and other odd events and information. We have a “theory” about how the world should work for us (e.g., our business strategy) and we move forward based on this set of assumptions of cause and effect. Yet we know (or should know) that theories are simplifications of reality based on our reasons for deeming somethings being important and other not so much. We pay attention to what we consider important and ignore what we don’t. We have to make these choices because of our cognitive limits: cannot consider everything “we know” equally (and besides why should we?); and we also do not know everything that may be of some significance in some future circumstance.

So we will face and witness anomalies in our expectations going forward. Our choices then include how easily will we:

  • want to observe them?
  • want to flag them as worthy of examination?
  • be able to assess whether they could be significant to our strategy’s success
  • want to use as much time to effectively and efficiently manage our exposure to them (survive and then thrive)?

So why have two experiences with an anomalous event when one will do nicely AND give us more time to respond?

I find it interesting that in our personal lives we can learn this lesson. Unfortunately it is often associated with trauma impacting events. My parents grew up in the depression, they were forever impacted in that they always limited their “financial exposure” as regards personal debt. Some people have suffered a cruel personal relationship event and the result is they are forever protecting themselves from ever being exposed again. This “over compensation” is an unfortunate outcome from suffering trauma inducing events.

What is so fascinatingly painful is to see people who suffer in their relationships and then repeat the experience. They have not incorporated the first three points above in their thinking and actions.

So this issue of how we improve our ability to deal with uncertainty like events is entertaining how we deal with anomalies. The four bullet points above are action principles we can use to help us be more successful at avoiding the trauma that uncertainty like events bring into our lives. For me the problem with suffering trauma is I am overwhelmed with the pain of it. One consequence is I lose my ability to look at it from a “healthy” learning perspective and in strategy (personal and organizational) this is a self inflicted blindness. I can never see the opportunities to benefit from.

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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
This entry was posted in Decison Making, Risk & Uncertainty, Strategy, Talent Manangement, Values and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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