Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Idea One: Ordinary Causes

Ordinary causes is an idea shown to me that I employ all the time when thinking about and trying to manage my life. It was introduced to me by Rod, Honda's training manager along with a lot of concepts but this one particularly stuck with me. Though not as impressive as NLP, it's one just about anybody can do, by simply reframing their thinking.

It is a simple realisation, that once accepted or assumed as fact enables you to gain some semblance of control over your life.

Enough preamble, what is it?

Say you have a machine that makes widgets or doo-dads. It can do so much manufacturing in a year, but it doesn't seem to do as well as it's supposed to. We tend to think of things cutting production as breakdowns, workplace accidents, things catching on fire. Alarms go off, workers march out into an assembly area, money is lost, quotas missed, it's all obviously fucked up.

These kinds of catastrophes are designated as 'special causes', and they are easy to identify and often have warnign systems and alarm bells built into them. Taking it out of the context of industrial economics, special causes in other aspects of life are things like - deaths in the family, car crashes, weddings, births, cancer, assualt, rape, psychotic episodes, winning the lottery and seeing double rainbows all the way across the sky.

They are rare, and considered 'high impact' events.

The key point is though, that special causes generally account for 10% of lost productivity in any system, 90% is the elusive and overlooked 'ordinary causes'. I think similarly, while major events can have a profound impact on your life, I imagine in the long run they contribute little to the quality of your life, as little as 10% compared to the 90% contributed by the constitution of your day to day life.

So going back to our machine in the factory inefficiently churning out doo-dads or widgets, 90% of the lost productivity is due to the everyday routine operation of the machine. It just isn't designed right, the workers aren't using it properly, it isn't maintained properly etc.

I once had a management consultant giving a guest lecture in my first university degree claim that '9 out of 10 times (90%) the issue in any organisation boils down to two people not liking eachother' for me, this is an example of an ordinary cause come to life.

The consultants making the big bucks generally do so, because they are looking for the ordinary cause, when everyone else is biased towards the special.

It's the same with the old question of: 'Plane Crash, Office Bombing, Shark Attack & Swimming Pool: which one doesn't belong?' where the answer is - Swimming Pool, it's the only one likely to kill you.

The bias towards special causes leads of course to overinvestment in things that aren't really going to impact our daily lives. Of course in the rare event of a plane being used as a bomb on your office (911) it is not to say that having a loved one killed, or being killed isn't an event of huge impact on your life. However the response to the special event was a society wide one, and as a society terrorism is a borderline negligable concern.

It's impact of course is greatly symbolic, the public reaction predictable and the response almost inevitable. The point being that until US citizens were put in the line of fire by being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, it was likely that on your average day (ie, not the 11th of September, 2001) Ford Motor Company killed more Americans (or allies) than Al Kaeda did. Same is true of Jack Daniels, or Mahlboro, or even probably the unlikely combination of Jack Daniels and Ford Motor Company.

The point being that we tend to get outraged and demand a ceasation of a malicious organisation deliberately planning to hurt and destroy the lives of many people, compared to the everyday impact of a company simply designing cars that aren't as safe as they possibly could be, and road rules not being designed and enforced as well as they could be.

And they would be, if we invested our energy and resources into addressing the impacts of the ordinary day to day things with the same urgency and attention we put on special once off events.

It isn't an intuitive mindset though. Firstly, the ordinary things dragging us down or holding us back are hard to notice, because they are things that make up the background noise of our lives.

Let's make it personal, rather than somewhat usellessly, societal. When thinking about how to improve the quality of our lives, I would wager we tend to fantasize up solutions that involve moving to some exotic new city, getting a big breakthrough in our careers, meeting our soulmate, buying/building a dream home etc.

There's no doubt such things have an impact, and I wouldn't even go as far as to say that just plain old stupid luck can rescue and damn some people in their lives through no effort or energy of their own. I just feel though that expecting to get a lucky break (and conversely managing to avoid any great catastrophe) leaves you with nothing to do in the meantime and is kind of a stupid approach to life in the same way that expecting to win the lottery is a dumb way to plan your retirement.

Take two hypothetical people, they both have a well paid but ultimately unsatisfying job. The first person tries to improve the quality of their life by sticking with the job and saving up for a dream holiday using all four weeks of annual leave. The second person looks for a job better suited to them.

If ordinary causes apply, the second person will improve their quality of life much more dramatically than the first.

Let's keep following the first person. They go on their dream holiday and they get assualted and have their wallet stolen, resulting in an unpleasant experience and an unpleasant finish to their holiday. Their mother never encouraged them to pursue their interests.

If ordinary causes apply, being assualted on holiday probably has less impact on their quality of life, over their lifetime than the lack of encouragement from their mother.

Not that this isn't abuse from a parent, physical nor psychological, simply a parental oversight, the same sort of oversight made by most people we know and encounter and only made important because of the parent-child bonds, the duration of the relationship, and early child development. Surely nobody would raise an eyebrow to the statement 'Jim in accounts has never encouraged me to pursue my interests' but then again, we also shouldn't underestimate the impact it would have on our quality of life if Jim from accounts did encourage us to pursue our interests.

This then is the power of ordinary causes. It's just an operating theory to me, based largely on self observation, but if you understand the potential impact of those ordinary non-pressing routine elements of our life you can address them aggressively and free up time and energy to handle those big events that come up infrequently and often unexpectantly.

Prioritising the ordinary, makes you more effective at handling the special.

I literally have somewhere (I haven't had to look at it for a long time) a very long list of people I should spend my free time with, and a very (very) short list of people I should actively (or at least passively) avoid. For me the people I do and don't spend time with is the biggest determinant of not just my happiness but also my success in the ventures important to me.

But other ordinary shit that has a huge impact is stuff like saving, having savings can smooth over unexpected catastrophes or allow you to seize unexpected opportunities. Same goes for diet (which I am terrible at) but what you eat every day can have a much bigger impact on your wellbeing than managing to go skiing without breaking a limb.

Probably one of the best examples, and by pure accident, of my managing away an ordinary cause was when I started cycling to work at Honda. It ensured that I always started my days on an endorphin high, as oppossed to being stressed out by peak our traffic (or shitty public transport) and furthermore it got me noticed. The bosses all thought I was some fit energetic young go-getter, as far as I'm aware, riding a bike to work is also a much more effective and much less expensive way to get recognised for your ride.

There's no real end to it either, and that is the beauty of having an ordinary cause-biased mindset. What is the impact on your career of deciding to read at night rather than watch TV? What is the impact on your career by transferring into a department of a great manager rather than sticking with your shitty manager? What is the impact on your quality of life (and career) by renting a great inner city apartment versus buying on the outskirts of a ring road? What is the difference to your esteam by eating home cooked meals versus buying takeout every night? What is the impact on your energy, by going to your friends birthday party versus staying home and going to bed?

If I'm really fucking honest, sometimes I have to laugh at the some of the lavish placebo's people chase in order to numb the pain of their existence. It's like paying for sex with a hooker to distract you from the hot coals you are standing on. Just step off the hot coals.

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