Thursday, May 24, 2020

The great sine wave of life

Why recognizing the ups and downs of life and business is vital

Success in life rises and falls, yet most organizational projections proceed ever upwards in straight lines. What is going on? Can organizations and their leaders really manage what nature never does—continual, uninterrupted progress? Or is it just hype and self-delusion?

A little while ago, Steve Roesler posted an extremely perceptive comment on this site. I replied at the time, but I think what he drew attention to is sufficiently important to warrant its own article. He referred to “the great sine wave of life.” That’s the way success rises and falls in a natural, but unpredictable, pattern. He contrasted this with the way that managers continually show charts with progress (sales, results, profits, or any other measure of achievement) continuing in a straight, upward line, far into the future.

Here’s an extract from his comment:
I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I’ve sat down with clients and asked why, in the face of both evidence and the uncontrollable nature of life, they insisted on putting up one more slide that showed an upward straight line as an indicator of where they were going. It is as if anything less than the projection of near-total success is a sign of weakness or defeat. Yet looking back over years of performance, it is obvious that we are on the “Great Sine Wave of Life.” . . . There is a great peacefulness that comes from recognizing that one is not in control (even if one is in charge!). And that is the ability to enjoy the ride, even when it’s bumpy. When you hit the smooth tarmac again it feels that much better!

The ups and downs of accountability

We all like to believe our successes are due to our own brilliance and effort. It isn’t so. Much of it is due to luck, whether we admit it or not. Some is due to the efforts of others, which we may or may not recognize as we should. And all of it rises and falls, sometimes showing a welcome boost, sometimes falling back or getting blocked by some problem or unexpected change in events.

Yet we also want to believe that our mistakes and failures are due to something—perhaps anything—other than our own mistakes, failures, stupidity, and weakness. This is also not so. Luck plays a major role here too, of course. So do the actions of others, or the rise and fall of markets and customer confidence. But we cannot shrug off our own accountability quite so easily. As Steve says, we’re not in control but we are are still in charge. And if we’re not entirely responsible for our failures (though our actions play a significant part in bringing them about), we’re not entirely responsible for our successes either (though we can help things along by acting in sensible ways).

So why do we persist in believing that we—and our organizations—can somehow cheat the natural order of things and compel continual, unchecked progress by mere effort and willpower?

On a personal level, this delusion is sad and causes great misery and stress. But on an organizational level, it gets twisted into a doctrine that states that people can be required to make things happen exactly as others demand; and that they deserve blame and punishment if they fail to do so. It’s as if the mere setting of some goals—regardless of how realistic they may be—is sufficient to cause them to happen. Unless, of course, individuals or teams “fail” in bringing them about. No account is taken of circumstances or external events. Successes are gleefully mis-attributed to human action (when luck is often the main cause), and failures are mis-attributed in the same way, this time for the simple reason that those in charge are also expected (impossibly) to be in control. By accepting such nonsense, people and organizations set themselves up to experience unnecessary stress at the slightest sign of “failure.”

The madness of macho managers

Worst of all, the macho bent of Hamburger Management creates a further layer of craziness: the assumption that a successful person should be able—who knows how?—to bend the future to his or her will.

Can anything be less productive of a calm, beneficial, and satisfying working environment? Can there be an attitude that is more likely to produce confusion by obscuring the real reasons why success comes about, in favor of silly myths about heroic personal endeavor? Is any set of beliefs more likely to generate stress and result in the punishment of the innocent and the adulation of the merely fortunate?

Does individual effort count? Surely it does, but not for nearly as much as we like to believe. Should people be held accountable for making things happen, regardless of the context and the effects of chance? Of course not. That is insanity on a corporate—even societal—level.

Nature contains no straight-line graphs, only waves

It’s time for a strong dose of realism. There is no such thing as continual progress. It proceeds in fits and starts, accompanied by times when everything seems bleak. Increasing profits without intermission can only be sustained by trickery, such as buying back large numbers of shares to inflate the price of the remainder, or other forms of creative accounting. That’s why much of the business of accountants has shifted from auditing past results to finding ways to change the appearance of present and future ones; and why consulting companies thrive on finding new ways to manipulate organizations to produce—at least on paper—the straight-line increases the financial markets now expect.

Until we can see clearly what is down to personal endeavor and what simply has to be accepted, like the vagaries of the weather, we cannot have a process of organizational leadership that is rational or civilized. Until we admit that we are not in control of the future—nor even fully in charge of this week’s results—we will continue to create our own, entirely artificial stressors.

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