Friday, April 21, 2020

Fog and Friction: Organizations and Murphy's Law

When Napoleon was ruling most of Europe, a Prussian general called Carl von Clausewitz wrote On War—one of the all-time, classic books on warfare, still studied in military academies. He coined the term friction to mean all the things that can—and mostly do—go wrong in the chaos of battle conditions. In another chapter, "Intelligence in War," he discussed the problems of getting accurate information in the middle of a military engagement: a situation later summed up by others as "the fog of war."

Business, like warfare, is messy and uncertain. Despite all our electronic wizardry and battalions of analysts, what von Clausewitz wrote still holds true. As soon as people move from the calm of the meeting room to the rough and tumble of action, friction and fog obscure the vision and confound the most careful planning. Actions rarely work as planned (friction) and accurate information is easily missed, lost or mangled (fog).

The confusion, tension, adrenaline and fear of battle quickly brings in Murphy's Law to govern events ("whatever can go wrong, will"). If you create similar pressures in an organization—by under-staffing, overwork, fear of dismissal, pressure to win no matter what, and despotic management—you'll get the same result: chaos, confusion, constant breakdowns and unnecessary losses. All the hurry, stress, competition, anxiety, in-fighting and pressure to meet near-impossible deadlines increases fog and friction a thousand-fold.

Machines that run at high speed demand constant, abundant lubrication to ward off the natural effects of friction between the parts. Slower-speed machines need less. Running a machine, or a business, faster than it should go is the perfect recipe for the maximum number of breakdowns. Excessive haste is the prime cause of all communication mistakes and omissions. A person under pressure hasn't the time to check they've explained clearly and you've understood. Someone listening when all around them is frantic is very likely to pick up the message wrongly or in incomplete form. If it doesn't seem to make sense, they'll try to remedy the nonsense using the best guess they can make. No time to check back or ask for clarification. The corporate grapevine is often a better, more accurate source of information than official channels simply because everyone takes their time when relaying gossip.

Do you remember the game children used to play called Chinese Whispers? How you sat in a ring, whispering a message hurriedly to the next person, who had to pass it on immediately, whether it made sense or not? That's organizational communication in many companies today. It's no wonder garbage comes out, whatever was put in at the start.

The best way to avoid Murphy's Law and messed up communications is simple: slow down. Give yourself time to react properly when things go wrong—for they surely will, whatever you do. Instead of rushing into panic mode, take a deep breath, stand back and look at the problem calmly and without the turbulent effects of emotion. If you're wise, you'll have expected quite a few things to fail or snarl up, so you won't be surprised or unduly alarmed.

Fog and friction are the prime causes of wastage in organizational settings—wastage of money, time, effort, manpower and resources of every other kind. They turn opportunities into fiascos and frequently cause top executives to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The world is a turbulent place; you can't change that. But it makes no sense to add to your problems through self-inflicted and usually unnecessary time pressures.

Slow down. Relax. Take time to let the fog clear and the dust settle. Most situations are less pressing and critical than you think. Success in business rarely depends on split-second decisions. That's just ego and hype.

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