Whatever happened to Plan B?

You don’t have to look too closely at most of our troubles these days to see that a lot of them are caused by our own technological triumphalism and inability to force ourselves to do a little old good-fashioned negative thinking.   In just about every sphere of advanced human endeavor, every so often we get our ass handed to us, to use an old phrase.

Reactors are melting down, because the risk matrix stopped a few feet short on just how high a tsunami wave COULD be.  Suddenly an entire region rises up to overthrow their dictatorial regimes and we don’t quite know what to do – this scenario wasn’t in the briefing papers.  Even on a relatively minor scale, I was just reading about a new mobile app called Color, which just raised 41 MILLION dollars in funding from the hip VC crowd, even though it doesn’t work, they have no customers, and their advertising model is suspect.  Not to mention I can’t even understand what it is supposed to do well enough to explain it to you here.

It gives you a little pause the next time you have to start making some plans.  Not that you should paralyze yourself with analysis, but you should spend a little time on the downside.  It’s one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about my Navy experience.

On a U. S. Navy ship, we pretty much expected things to go to hell.  You could count on getting hit, and if you got hit, there was going to be a lot of nastiness to deal with in terms of fire, flooding, and general mayhem.  So you figured out what the hell you were going to do in advance.  If the fire main lost pressure, you’d better throw a hose over the side and rig pumps.  If the fire main was broken,  you’d better jumper it with firehoses.  And you’d better set the stuff you MIGHT need close to where you’ll need it and make sure it is clearly marked and maintained.

One of the strange things I noticed when I entered the business world as a civilian is that there is absolutely no tolerance for anything except a Pollyanna view of things.  As you sit in a conference room with some mid-level functionary spinning out their grandiose plans, heaven forbid you should raise any questions about what we should do “if”.  What if sales don’t grow by the forecast amount?  What if there’s a delay from the vendor? What if the server goes down?  What if the tsunami wave is higher than 18 feet?

Bring up any other such questions and you’ll get the “look” from the individual selling you their rosy view of the future.  You’ll be branded as not being a “team player”.  You’ve got an attitude problem.   We want you to think outside the box, but only on the “upside” of the box.

Maybe it’s time we stopped the magical thinking and learned to embrace our dark side.  There’s nothing wrong with a realistic assessment of risks.  Picture the worst case scenario you can possibly imagine, figure out what you are going to do to survive it,  and then plunge ahead.  If one assumption turns out to be wrong or inaccurate, what fork in the road do I take?  And when the circumstances call for switching to Plan B, throw the switch.

And if someone tells you to Think Positively, ask “What are you trying to sell me”?

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4 thoughts on “Whatever happened to Plan B?

  1. I loved this post. Timely for me, too given my partner’s accident last week. It really got me to thinking about all the “unknowns” or “black swans” that can come one’s way and as a result, I started scenario planning all kinds of different possibilities and asking myself “what would I do if?”

    We are too afraid of being pessimistic in our society. I think people confuse pessimism with simply being a “downer” on some issue. To me, pessimism can be very motivating because it’s gets the footing in place better and can even give more confidence to move forward.

    I loved the navy experience you speak of. I can well-imagine how critical it would be to go through every and all scenarios you could possibly think of.

    Thanks for this, Harry.

    • Thanks John. I think there’s some grey area between unbounded optimism and black-hole pessimism that our society has neglected to consider. A valid questioning of assumptions and realistic planning for all scenarios is just plain smart thinkin’ to me! But anything less than 100% support is somehow ridiculed in the power centers.

  2. This post hits home. If I am cynical, it’s because I see things as they are, not as they should be. I’m tired of being told to simply “believe” and I’ll find instant happiness.

    Absolutely we should have a Plan B. I may be working on C, D, and F, but at least I know that bad stuff happens—you can count on it.

    There’s an old saying that the definition of an optimist is a person who doesn’t have all the facts.

    • Glad to see I’m not the only one! Any successful operation I’m aware of evaluates what is going on and changes accordingly. Life is a chess game…you need to look at the other player’s moves before you figure out your next one!

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