Sunday, April 30, 2006

Plan B

I've been holding fast to a quote that I first saw on Tom Peter’s web site and wanted to highlight it in support of those starting and growing enterprises. It originated with James Yorke and we'll get to its text in a bit.

James Yorke is a mathemetician and scholar, who coined the term and propelled the field of "chaos theory".

The host of one of my favorite radio shows (Dick Gordon, The Connection, WBUR, Boston) summarized chaos theory this way: "Come on, you know it. The story about the butterflies. How the flapping of their tiny, delicate wings somewhere on, say, the South American continent, will influence a storm in upstate New York or Southern California. The story is used to illuminate a central tenant of what has come to be known as chaos theory, the idea that an act so small, so distant, so seemingly random and irrelevant can have monstrous, life and universe-changing consequences.

The theory applies to more than just the weather, it can be used to explain the course of history, HIV/AIDS, interplanetary gravitational pulls, and yes, even our own messy lives. James Yorke coined the phrase "Chaos Theory." He's this year's winner of the prestigious Japan Prize for his contribution to science....."

The Japan Prize, which Dr. Yorke won in 2003, is globally significant. Past winners include Robert Gallo for the co-discovery of the HIV virus, Timothy Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, MIT's Marvin Minsky for his seminal artificial intelligence work, and Johns Hopkins' Donald Henderson (with others) for the eradication of smallpox.

I also like the way that The Exploratorium out in San Francisco described the implications of chaos theory: "Today deterministic chaotic behavior has been discovered in numerous natural phenomena and analyzed in detail in dozens of experiments. From compound pendula to dripping faucets, from predator-prey ecologies to measle epidemics, from oscillating chemical reactions to irregular beats of a chicken heart, the underlying mechanisms have been detected. Despite the scientific successes, though, it is important to emphasize that deterministic chaos, and the various mechanisms that underlie it, are not the only explanations of random, noisy, unpredictable behavior in nature. Many well-known processes, and undoubtedly many waiting to be discovered, can produce behavior that is unpredictable. Thus, this abiding question is, How do we discover which of many possible mechanisms has produced the apparent disorder?

I don't pretend to know anything about the math behind chaos theory. But the fact that there is highly regarded science telling me that random stuff happens from predictable causes is comforting. It means we'll never run out of random stuff and that's a fact we should all plan for.

It's not my point here that you're generating chaos in your enterprise life. That's a given. You're hopefully doing something new, fixing problems and generating new economic geographies. Keep at it.

What I'd like to emphasize is the randomness of the universe coming at you and your enterprise.

This is particularly true in enterprise planning. Former President and Supreme Commander during WWII Dwight Eisenhower is often quoted as saying, "Plans are nothing; planning is everything."

While you're in the midst of everything that you will face, nothing can be taken as certain. Absolute certainties sometimes fail. Sure things, often aren't.

Don't get me wrong. Getting as close as you can to "certain and sure" is the gold standard metric. Push, try, refine, get closer continuously.

But most of the time, life happens. Obscure causes can send waves through your enterprise life that defy logic but do, in fact, occur in spite of your best efforts.

Dr. Yorke, among the most acknowledged and rewarded minds of our time, summed up this position deftly in a quote from New Scientist Magazine and posted by Tom Peters.

I'd like to suggest it as a core value of your enterprise life. It's as close to true as anything I know about sustainable work.

"The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B."

Dr. James Yorke's bio at UMD

Listen to a conversation between James York and Dick Gordon on The Connection from WBUR

The Exploratorium chaos doc

Link to New Scientist article ($4.95 RQ'd but you get print and full on line access for a year)

Tom Peters