Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 47;   November 24, 2010: Beyond Our Control

Beyond Our Control

by

When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed. We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torch

Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torch. Prairies depend on fire for ecosystem stability and diversity. Fire eliminates invasive plants and makes soil chemistry more suitable for grasses. In the absence of fire, shrubs, trees, and exotic grasses would dominate. Today many of the prairies that remain are managed by prescribed burns.

In organizations, the "grassfire" of chains of broken promises serves an analogous purpose. Cleared of commitments, the organization can change directions more nimbly for a time, until it gets locked in by a new web of commitments. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Bad things happen. We plan and we plan, and sometimes bad things happen anyway. Even when we anticipate difficulties, events might unfold in unanticipated ways, or we might be unable to execute the plans we had because of other unanticipated events.

Yet, when bad things happen, we can feel like failures. We might believe there was something more we could have done. We lose confidence. Our performance degrades. If this cycle continues, it can affect our personal lives — even our health.

Why we do this is a bit mysterious. In calmer moments, we do know that we can't control everything, but maybe we want to feel like we're in control of more than we actually are. It's a difficult habit to break. To make some progress, though, to come to peace despite failures, we can contemplate exactly what in Life truly is beyond our control.

Hindsight is often a distorted view
Sometimes there really is something more we could have done. Usually there isn't, but even when there is, given what we knew at the time, it's possible — even likely — that we made appropriate choices, despite the clear indications otherwise when viewed with hindsight. It's possible to have made correct choices given the information we had at the time, and then later to realize that if we knew then what we know now, we would have made different choices. That's OK.
We forget about the limits of possibility
Even when hindsight reveals a better alternative, it might not have been possible at the time. Choosing it might have resulted in disciplinary action, reassignment, or termination. Was it a real choice? Even if we had advocated it, would it have been approved? Would people have supported it? Would resources have been available? Hindsight might reveal a better choice, but the then-current reality might have precluded it.
Promises are interconnected
In modern organizations, Even when hindsight reveals
a better alternative, it
might not have been
possible at the time
our plans and decisions depend on commitments from others — assurances of support, resources, reliable information, and more. They promise, and we accept their promises. Sometimes, people break their promises, usually involuntarily. They give their word based on promises others make to them. Viewed this way, modern organizations are little more than webs of promises, and when some promises are broken, promise-breaking travels through that web like grassfire. There isn't much anyone could have done about it. When your plans fail because of one of these global promise collapses, is there anything different you could have done? Probably not.

Whether due to limited information, limited capabilities, or our limited ability to keep our promises, we can control only some of what happens around us. It's a difficult reality to accept. Even though we might prefer the fiction of failure to the reality of our limitations, reality is always a better choice. Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Misunderstand Somebody Else  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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See also Workplace Politics and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
Tuckman's stages of group developmentAnd on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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