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Lindy Hopping to Hell: A Business Leader’s View of Human Failure

Dec 3, 2020 | Long-form, Organizational strategy

Reading Time: 6 minutes

We were in the middle of the biggest evacuation in our state’s entire history.

And unable to look away, I watched throngs of panicking people carrying out anything not boarded down from the Home Depot. Needless to say, it was a hurricane season I doubted I’d ever forget. To illustrate the sheer chaos: one man half-danced out, fumbling and stumbling, armed to the gills with standard, soft insulation. He intended to put it over his home’s windows to protect them.

And for the very first time that day, I couldn’t help but laugh to a friend as I mimed the ham-fisted ballet.

This isn’t the only emergency situation that has brought out my morbid sense of humor. Or the only time I was skeptical about how humans deal with crisis or organizational failure at a small and grand scale. After all, by this time, I had lead teams, departments, and companies through chaos, not to mention my family.

And you probably have similar stories yourself.

Consequently, we’re all jumping through the hoops of the Covid-19 pandemic at the moment. And this year’s crisis has laid bare the interwoven nature of our global world, reminding us of the possibility of its systemic failure and how humans respond to it all.

And today’s guest, Joe Norman, the founder of Applied Complexity, has something to say about it. On a particularly nuanced view of our failure, he starts in his recent company newsletter…

Despite this [abundance of data], there is absolutely no consensus or coherence around how serious [the Covid pandemic] is, or what to do (or not do) about it.

So far, so good.

And yet, the organizational decision-makers in the room, say business executives or higher governing officials, just shifted in their chairs a bit.

What do you mean no one can agree on what should be done? Someone has to decide what to do or not to do, after all. Consensus be damned. And though we might try, we’re all caught up, somewhere or other, in our place in modernity’s hyperglobalization.

Not unlike my hurricane evacuation, you can’t simply opt out. Or not easily.

And guess what?

Before storms arrive, people seek out expertise. For example, your friend in another city, maybe across state, might call. And he’s going to ask the inevitable question: you’re a smart guy. And you’ve been looking at the models. What do you think his family should do? You can tell him to stay home and ride things out. Or you can tell him to run like hell.

What he most certainly doesn’t care about is whether there’s no consensus.

Otherwise, he wouldn’t be asking you.

The tradeoff for public health is obvious: it is better to solve a problem without a central view into the detailed dynamics, than it is to have such a central view while failing to solve the problem.

So, I’m already feeling shaky about where Mr. Norman is going.

Now, full disclosure: in recent years, I’ve been in a bit of a twist between centralizing and de-centralizing views. My career has lead me to suspect it’s more of a balancing act than anything else.

But here, Mr. Norman suggests two things. First, that we have a choice in our institutional responsibilities. Anyone who’s dealt with red tape or political optics knows that’s not always the case. This is as much true for starting as stopping a ball from rolling. And secondly, that our choices could ever be so clean and clear instead of malleable and very messy.

Take his at-home covid test example, for starters.

Not unlike the vaccine, can we guess the result if the FDA had rushed the approval process even more quickly? That’s right, there would have been widespread distrust of this scaled-up product. Not great for optics. And I know more than a few people who won’t get the vaccine simply because of its hasty development.

On the flip side, that central view is the only reason people, and I assume Mr. Norman, believe they need a test at all.

In either case, these cagey, often murky, details matter to many reasonable men.

It is hard to imagine a solution to this distrust at scale, given that scale is the source of the distrust. People believe what they experience directly, with their own eyes and ears, or the eyes of their close friends and families. Outside of that, it is not unreasonable to doubt the veracity of the information one receives. Too much mediation, and too many agendas.

But let’s briefly turn back to my hurricane evacuation.

When I had finished boarding up my home, I had a decision to make for myself too. Should I stay or should I go? Having been through more hurricane seasons than I can count, I was inclined to listen to my own eyes and ears. I had never needed to evacuate.

Then again, sooner or later, possibly in my lifetime, my city would get a direct hit. And even an indirect hit can cause serious challenges for people caught in it. For one, we very likely could be cut off from the mainland.

What did the local government say? Stay put; best not to panic. If too many people fled, it would go very badly. But what did the charts say? We were about to get a close strike from a raging Category Five.

Local old timers split both ways on what the outcome would be, based on their experience watching storms pass through. And for anyone who’s dealt with local city politics or family drama, you know everyone’s always got an opinion. And someone always has an agenda.

Who to trust, even locally, when you’re second guessing yourself?

So, I cut through the mess and flipped a coin.

When I left, people everywhere were absurdly shielding their windows with whatever they could find. Insulation; one or two fence boards; a narrow, slotted closet door. Today, I can’t help but be reminded of everyone’s masks. Or their American flags on 9/11.

And before the hurricane, many fled their homes to try to get more inland.

But only to find themselves running out of gas and unable to get more, trapped wherever they stopped with full hotels unable to take them.

It was once true that people trust the eyes and ears of those nearby. But that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Still, it will always be true that the human animals we know can be dumb, savage, untrustworthy things, not unlike technocrats.

We often want chaos. And we constantly demand scale in the face of it.

At least, that’s been my impression of humans throughout my career. People meltdown over trivialities, they make tradeoffs between accuracy and consistency, and they routinely pretend to care about things for reasons, good and nefarious. And I have yet to see any clean lines separating the multiplex of our interwoven systems extending out from our lives.

Trust?

In this case, today with Covid, we can’t and shouldn’t overlook, that the Black Plague has left us waiting and failed to appear for the prom. There’s the case-demic and obvious mission creep, sure. But this is true no matter which source, local or global, you assess, regardless of trust.

How long must we wait around for our macabre damsel to grace us with a deadly dance?

The individual has a dual relationship with the unfolding of history. On one hand, the dynamics are so large that it is hard to imagine one’s personal actions affecting the macroscopic trajectory. On the other, history unfolds as a consequence of all of our decisions and actions — it is not separate from them.

[…]

So, it is true that a crisis is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to participate directly in the unfolding of history. No act is too small to matter.

Whatever happened in the end, after we evacuated?

The hurricane largely passed us by and there was little damage. We spent the weekend in a hotel, where I had to sweet talk us into the last remaining room, so we didn’t have to sleep on the conference room floors. Then the power went out. Upon returning, our home was still standing, although I spent the week putting up fencing after ours was partially downed. Of course, the state government deployed a rapid, effective response to clearing roads.

Which of our actions and those of our neighbors mattered in the crisis?

I’m inclined to say not many, coinflips aside. And most definitely not those of the absurd idiots nailing insulation to their windows.

And if anything, I’ve learned life is less about mitigating risk and more about rolling with the punches. And after all, for example, Taleb, for all his talk, isn’t a boxer in the ghetto. No, he’s now just another loud, rich Boomer Flâneur, trying to convince us he’s scared as he drinks wine with his mask on like an asshole.

But maybe that’s just it.

Life often reduces us to that silly man dancing with insulation outside of Home Depot that day. Call it the Lindy Hop to Hell. A fusion of historic improvisation making for an impressive, final stage show.

For some of us, it’s a personal moment, lost in the whirlwind of our little moment. For others, it is an opportunity to jive in the heated competition against each other. Still, for others, they might get to look good in the limelight. Or for some, it can seem like a struggle between the very spirit of life and death themselves.

Then there’s those of us who simply think it’s all an unavoidable but laughably good time.

Mr. Norman believes we can all affect change, real change. And still exact some sort of control. But that’s likely exactly what we’re already seeing: not people trying to control chaos; people trying to feed chaos for control.

And while we’re all in this boat together, the crisis is not our inability to trust information or our failure to get the steps in this dance right. It’s that we are surrounded by people not able, any longer, to see the sheer absurdity in their closing performance.

Meaningful action be damned too.

But wherever you tell me this ship’s headed to next is fine by me.

Personally, I always liked to waltz with a beautiful lady. And one day, eventually, she makes an honest man out of all of us.

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