In an episode of The West Wing, a television drama series about the U.S. Presidency, the "President" comments about the consequences of a possible outbreak of Mad Cow Disease. He says, "The most costly disruptions always happen when something we take completely for granted stops working for a minute." To take for granted is "to assume as true, real, or expected," or "to value too lightly." [Mish 2005] In this case, the President is remarking on the societal disruption that could occur if the U.S. beef industry "stops working." And he's saying that the disruption would be costly because "we take [the beef industry] completely for granted."
Recent events have provided examples of the power of the "President's" observation: the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 and is ongoing [Robertson 2020]; the Texas power generation failure of winter 2020-2021 [Penney 2021]; and the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in 2019. These three examples illustrate how we took for granted, respectively, the water we drink, the electric power we use, and the air we breathe.
Although these examples are regional or global in scale, an inquiry into possible organizational analogs can be fruitful. In this post I offer two insights for organizations based on the connection between Disruptions and our Expectations.
- Disruptions point the way to needed innovations
- In May of 2021, extortionists forced the shutdown of pipelines owned and operated by Colonial Pipeline Company. [Shear 2021] The company paid a ransom of approximately USD 5 million to resume operations after a five-day disruption, which resulted in gasoline shortages along the East coast of the United States.
- The incident illustrates — not for the first time — that many operators of network infrastructure within companies incorrectly expect that their equipment is safe from cyberattack. One way to address this problem is to expect individual companies to educate themselves about cyberdefense. That is the current approach, and it usually emphasizes technological improvements. This approach places cyberdefense directly in conflict with short-term financial results.
- As the Colonial "The most costly disruptions always happen
when something we take completely for
granted stops working for a minute."
— "President Bartlet" of the West Wing
Pipeline incident demonstrates, the current approach is not working well. A more innovative approach would recognize that industry as a whole has a cybersecurity problem. The innovation that's needed here is one that guides individual companies to work more collaboratively to enhance cybersecurity. This problem is perhaps best addressed at a national or global scale.
- Expectations indicate unrecognized risks
- For any given organizational initiative, if we can identify an expectation, we can then ask, "What if events defy our expectation?" The answer to that question can be expressed as a risk for that initiative. For example, consider a project whose objective is extending a software asset by adding new capabilities. We might expect that if we supply enough resources and time, the project will be successful. Moreover, we might expect that subsequent projects of a similar nature will also be successful.
- But such expectations haven't always aligned with events. Over time, repeatedly extending software assets has resulted in increased maintenance costs and general difficulty in making enhancements. The phenomenon is known as software brittleness. Software project managers would do will to regard increased software brittleness as a risk of projects whose objectives are extension of existing assets — a risk that must be mitigated.
Disruptions are evident when they occur, but expectations can remain unrecognized for indefinite periods. That's why investing effort in identifying unrecognized expectations can be so fruitful. As an example, asking questions of the form, "What if X is removed from this situation" can help. What else can you do to find the expectations of yours that can connect to disruptions? Top Next Issue
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