What Would You Do If Everything You Owned Was Destroyed Last Night


Sunday, 8.24pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. – Samuel Butler

Things get messy quickly when you start digging into the details of anything.

In yesterday’s post, for example, I went back to Deming’s words on quality – and how that is the place from which a sustainable business springs.

But, as Deming writes, talking about quality isn’t enough and the next thing he brings up is a flow diagram – a picture of how things happen when you look at something like production as a system.

That seems pretty clear – but it can hide some fundamental issues.

One way of studying something – your life, your business, your relationships – is to map out whatever is going on right now.

For example, you could look at a function in your business and draw a flow diagram from start to finish of what goes where and what happens next.

But what do you have when you do that?

You end up with a picture of reality – what you already have in front of you.

Now, maybe that’s useful and you can start to question that reality and ask whether something should be where it is or not.

But what you do, when you do that, is tinker at the edges, smooth out the surface.

You don’t look deep.

A different way to look at things is to ask what you would do if the whole thing was destroyed last night.

What would you do if you came home and your house was empty – if burglars had come and taken everything you owned.

What would you do if your business was taken hostage – all your data was wiped clean and you had nothing left on the company’s servers?

What would you do if your operations burned down – every last machine gone and every part destroyed.

Would you build everything back exactly the same?

Would you restock your house with all those Christmas presents and toys that have been languishing for years in the loft?

Would you make the same products in the same way?

Russell Ackoff calls this kind of thinking Idealized Design and wrote a book with the same name.

In that he talks about the process you should follow.

There are two parts to it – idealization and realization.

In idealization what you’re trying to do understand the mess and figure out what you need to avoid doing in the future.

And then you figure out what you do want.

Then, in realization, you make it happen – with people, plans and controls and management.

And I find all of that slightly positivist and depressing – a little too structured and engineered to perhaps actually work in the real world without a huge amount of effort and stress.

Let me explain.

It makes a lot of sense to ask what should be here? rather than what is here?

If you describe reality then what you have at the end is a poor model of reality – after all, reality itself is the richest model there is.

If you describe what reality should be like now you have a useful model – one that can be compared to reality and used as a source of questions.

For example, if you think about your perfect day and it involves long stretches of writing at a beachside cafe and what you actually do is spend every day commuting four hours into a hellhole of a city – then you have a model and a reality you can contrast and compare.

That kind of investigation into a mess results in models and barriers – things that are stopping you from having your perfect life or business.

Ackoff talks about asking what you want right now – not what you want five years from now and that makes sense.

But in the first chapter of the book he also writes about possible futures and how to avoid future destruction.

These are tricky things because we are very bad at getting calls on the future right.

But we are quite good at short term thinking – surviving right now.

The challenge is to find a balance.

For example, you could carry on commuting and wishing you were writing on that beach – nothing would change.

You could quit your job and go spend a year on the beach – which might be a nice year but not go down well with your other half, children or bank manager.

Or you could take a holiday on a beach for a week and see if you actually enjoyed doing that kind of thing.

I suppose the point is that execution is not that hard once you know what you need to do.

Most of us are actually pretty good at execution.

Two things slow us down.

The first is not knowing what to do.

The second is being held back by all the stuff and crap that’s in your life right now.

But here’s the thing – if you can’t figure out the ideal way to do something when you’re working entirely in your mind’s imagination with no barriers how do you think you’ll do it when you’re in the real world and held back by all sorts of barriers?

Change is hard and it’s not as simple as following a process where you first idealize and then realize.

At the same time it is as simple as first understanding what should be and what is – and then working out what you need to do.

Sometimes prescriptions and processes are really checklists and reminders – they are there to see if you’ve forgotten to do something rather than rigid routes to follow.

Because the one thing that you’ll find is that your road has to be your own.

Once someone else walks their road – it vanishes behind them.

Leaving only a story.

Which might not be true.


Karthik Suresh

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