Workaholics United : Playing the Percentages

Whenever management lays down some new policies for customers or employees, there will inevitably be some degree of blowback. Any change, from moving to a outsourcing to India to moving furniture from one department to another, disrupts our sphere of comfort.

Since I can’t get away with simply saying, “Well, that’s different from what I’m used to,” I would be inclined to gather some negative results designed to invalidate the new policy. One time I was asked to implement an email autoresponder with text I disagreed with. After a few days, I got a couple of complaints from customers, so I argued to the boss that we should scrap the autoresponder. Referring to the complaints, he asked the question I’d come to expect from him:

“What percentage of the time does this happen?”

I sighed, knowing that not only had I been shot down, but that he was right in principle. I felt foolish telling him that I had received three complaints out of hundreds of email exchanges.

With any new project, some things are bound to go wrong. A zero-defect mentality is a zero-action policy. For practical goal realization, the operative principle should be to contain risk, not eliminate it. A certain amount of risk analysis is healthy. The trick is to identify the point of diminishing returns where further steps to reduce risk are actually attempts to eliminate risk, which is unrealistic.

There’s no formula for determining that point, only an intuition or an arbitrary definition that involves asking an answer certain questions:

* How seriously would the problem impact this?
* What percentage of the time does the problem happen?
* What percentage is acceptable?
* Is the problem irreversible?
* What other problems could happen?
* What steps could be taken to fix the problem?
* What steps could be taken to prevent the problem without abandoning the project?
* What problems would result from abandoning the project?
* Does the positive impact of success outweigh the negative impact of failure?

Psychologically, risk is “contained” when it’s given precisely the amount of attention appropriate to it, not more. The focus is predominantly on the likelihood of a negative outcome rather than the details of it. Problems are converted into projects, defined in terms of successful outcomes and next actions.

Recognize the difference between creating slack and being a slacker. Define your margin for error and embrace the art of strategic failure as a practical price to pay for accomplishing bigger goals.

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