Excerpt from Shit Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure
Why be concerned about catastrophes?
- False Assumptions
What is a catastrophe?
- The final event of the dramatic action, especially of a tragedy
- An event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering; a disaster
- Utter failure
We are usually surprised when a catastrophe strikes. There is a tendency to believe that a catastrophe is something that is unexpected, always happens suddenly, and is caused by a single thing going wrong.
These are false assumptions. The vast majority of catastrophes can easily be predicted with some attention and focus. If predicted, they can often be planned for and averted. If unavoidable, they can be planned for and their results blunted and minimized. Catastrophes occur suddenly only in terms of the final event, the catastrophe itself; however, the buildup, via a series of what we will term cascade events, can be very long in the unfolding. And at least one of these cascade events involves human error. Thus most catastrophes can be avoided.
In this book I walk through seven well-known catastrophes, showing the six cascade events leading to the seventh and final event. I list the events, pointing out how each could either be noted (knowledge often can prevent the cascade of events that lead to #7, the final event) or corrected. The key for us to focus on is what was learned and changed because of each, saving the lives of countless others afterward.
- A catastrophe is closer than you think.
While you might not have personally been in a catastrophe or a tragedy, I can assure you that we have all come close more often than we realize. Many times we’ve been to a #4, #5 or #6 cascade event and not gone into the final event; therein lies one of the key deceptions that lulls us into complacency.
As we will see in the seven examples, there are many places along the cascade of events where a single person saying or doing something, could have stopped the cascade and prevented the catastrophe or, at the very least, minimized the effect of the final event. Thus it’s very important for us to understand how seemingly innocuous events can play a tragic role if left unchecked. This book is also about the gift of failure: how we can learn from past catastrophes in order to avoid ones in the future. The aviation industry works off the gift of failure in that practically every safety innovation introduced is invented in response to a plane crash.
Ultimately, it’s about gaining the proper catastrophe mindset, which goes against our natural instincts because . . .
- Delusion events fool us.
We often look at narrow escapes or near misses as ‘fortunate’ events where disaster was averted; indeed, we get to the point where we normalize near misses. Instead, we need to look at these ‘fortunate’ events as cascade events where we came close to catastrophe and were simply fortunate that we didn’t hit the final event. Relying on luck is a very dangerous mindset yet we immerse ourselves in it on a daily basis. We often call it ‘dodging the bullet’ forgetting that when a bullet hits, the results are catastrophic to the target.
We need to focus on cascade events, see their negative potential, and reduce their occurrence. A cascade event that doesn’t lead to a final event we will label a delusion event. A cascade event and delusion event are exactly the same: the only difference is that a delusion event doesn’t result in a final event.
Delusion events lead us into delusional thinking: that we will continue to dodge the bullet by doing nothing. In fact, a delusion event, where something goes wrong, but doesn’t lead to the final event, reinforces our complacency to do nothing about correcting a delusion event and increases our risk of a final event, a catastrophe. We take it as the status quo, not an aberration. Delusion events lead to the normalization of unacceptable risk. For a very simple example, the further you drive with the check engine light on in your car, the more you think it’s normal for that light to be on. This is called normalization by Diane Vaughan in her book The Challenger Launch Decision.(1) We’ll discuss this catastrophe as one of our seven in the second book in this series, focusing on organizational thinking about delusion events.
How many times have you been in a hotel or restaurant or store and the fire alarm goes off? How many times did you hurry to the exit? Rather, didn’t you, and everyone around you, with no smoke or fire, stand around, and wait for someone to actually announce what’s going on? We’ve been desensitized by false alarms to the point where the alarm serves little purpose any more.
The Harvard Business Review did a study in 2011 (2) and found that delusion events (multiple near misses) preceded every disaster and business crisis they studied over a seven-year period. Besides delusional thinking leading to normalization, the other problem is outcome bias. If you flip a coin six times and it come up heads six times, even though statistically rare (1 chance in 64 attempts), you will tend to start focusing on the result, believing all coin tosses end up heads. While we know this isn’t true, we tend to base our probabilities of future occurrences not on the statistics of reality but on our experiences.
This is called heuristics and is at the root of many disasters. Hueristics is experience-based techniques for learning and problem solving that give a solution which isn’t necessarily optimal. We generalize based on the things we value most: our own experience and information related to us from sources we trust. Think how many ‘truths’ you have heard that turn out to be nothing more than an urban legend or a superstition. Yet we base many of our daily and emergency actions around these.
A small example from The Green Beret Survival Guide: every so often there is a news article about someone in a desperate survival situation who claims drinking their urine helped them make it through. That’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. But it’s one of those stories that gets repeated enough, we believe it to be true. Because we only hear from survivors, who did so despite doing the wrong thing.
It is human nature that we focus on successful outcomes much more than negative ones. It’s irrational, but that’s part of being human. In the same way, managers and leaders are taught to plan for success, not failure, since it’s believed planning for failure is negative thinking. In fact, I would submit that many people are part of a cult of positive thinking that often excludes reality.
The good news is we tend to be predictably irrational and understanding our tendency to make a cascade event a delusion event, is the first step in correcting this problem.
Now available, book one in my new non-fiction series: Shit Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure.
Saying “shit happens” indicates events are random, have no meaning and there is no accountability or responsibility. It indicates such events could just as easily happen again and there’s nothing we can do about them.
This book is about catastrophes and how to avoid them, mitigate their effects and learn from them as seen from the perspective of the Masters of Chaos: United States Army Special Forces (Green Berets). Taking the attitude shit happens is negative and is fatal.
Titanic: Systematic Failure
Kegworth Plane Crash: The Danger of Deferring to Authority and Experts
Little Big Horn: Leadership Failure
New London Schoolhouse Explosion: Lack of Focus
The Donner Party: Social Disintegration
From Tulips to the Housing Bubble: Greed Overwhelms Reality
Apollo 13: Success Snatched from the Jaws of Catastrophe
The bottom line is we can predict and prevent most catastrophes because every one has at least one man made factor, of the 7 cascade events, involved. In other words, we have control over whether shit happens. But it means changing a complacent mindset, getting rid of delusional thinking, and viewing the world around us in a Green Beret way.
Because shit doesn’t just happen.
Book 2 will be out on 30 September covering Challenger; the Last Czar; the sinking of the Kursk; the Deepwater Horizon explosion; the burning of the Sultana; Pearl Harbor; and the Andes Plane Crash.
When I was young I watched the movie No Highway In The Sky starring Jimmy Stewart. It’s about an engineer who fears the first jet-engine commercial airliner will crash because of metal fatigue. He’s so convinced he’s right, even though everyone else thinks he’s wrong, that he retracts the landing gear while the plane is parked on the runway to prevent it from taking off. Of course, by the end of the movie he’s proven right.
But of more interest, three years after the movie, the first jet passenger plane, the de Havilland Comet had two fatal crashes. The cause: metal fatigue.
Then I went to West Point and subsequently volunteered for the Special Forces (Green Berets). Both of these experiences had a profound effect on the way I view the world around me. Operating in the covert world leads one to have a paranoid perspective where shit doesn’t just happen, it’s expected, and we have to deal with it.
I’ve written quite a few novels based on my experiences, but also some nonfiction books. The Green Beret Survival Guide is full of not only survival information, but stories about survival events. In a way, this book is an expansion of those types of individual stories to larger catastrophes. Who Dares Wins: Special Operations Strategies for Success is where I apply what I learned and taught in Special Operations to the civilian world. As we’ll see in the following disasters, expertise in areas such as communication, goal-setting, leadership, character, motivation, etc. all play a role.
Finally, my wife (who is terrified of flying) and I became very interested in a television show titled Seconds From Disaster, which aired on National Geographic. Over the seasons it covered just about every plane crash and numerous other disasters. And we noticed a startling commonality. No plane crash just happened. There was always a series of mistakes, miscalculations, negligence and other events leading up to those final seconds and the disaster. Which led us to develop the . . .
The Rule of 7: no crash happens in isolation or as the result of a single event. It requires a minimum of 7 things to go wrong in order for an airplane to crash. And one of those 7 is always human error. It might not be the primary cause, but it is always a contributing factor.
This book will show you how the Rule of 7 applies not just to plane crashes, but to catastrophes across a spectrum of widely different events, from a ship sinking to a battle, to an emigrant party in the wilderness to tulips and a housing bubble.
What can we learn from 7 catastrophes that is relevant to us and could very well save your life and that of others?
We are more powerful than we believe in the face of catastrophe.
A catastrophe involving humans does not happen in isolation.
In fact, with enough knowledge and preparation, many individuals and organizations can avoid catastrophes altogether, and if caught in one, survive.
Thus, this book is about 7 catastrophes, utilizing the Rule of 7 to show you at least 7 contributing events to each catastrophe and how each one could have been avoided.
That is the purpose of Shit Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure.