Systems Thinking, Luck, and a Great Comment

In response to “Systems Thinking II: My Summer Vacation,” there were a number of fascinating Comments. For only about the third time since we started this blog, I am reprinting the comment in full.

(NB: Re Paul’s riff on luck, I was utterly delighted to see that my “bible,” Fooled By Randomness, is on the BusinessWeek bestseller list—and I have the smallest hope that I had the smallest bit to do with that—I’ve never mentioned any other book so often in this blog.)

From Paul: “Chetan, I disagree with your assessment. I don’t think we can recognize, with any degree of accuracy, the full 1st order consequences of a major action such as war, much less the second order consequences, or “consequences of the consequences”, as you termed it. To believe that we are that capable is epistemic arrogance. Bush’s administration likely DID try to anticipate 1st and 2nd order consequences, only they anticipated the ones they wanted to see. Others anticipated less optimistic consequences, and time proved them to be right. It does not mean they were any better at it—I believe a high degree of luck was involved.

This is exactly why I asked Tom if Grant would still be his hero had he lost. Is Grant a great general because he won the war, or did he win the war because he was a great general? Has Bush’s war policy failed because he is a poor strategic planner, or is Bush a poor strategic planner because his war policy failed?

This is precisely why action is so important. We have far, far less ability to predict outcomes than we think we do. Much deliberation is needless, and I think the outcomes are more random than we realize (yet we trick ourselves into thinking it worked out because we planned it that way). The most we can hope for is to get out there, “thrash around”, and see if something good happens. If something doesn’t, keep moving.

I absolutely believe hard work and skill play their role, too, so don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying that a lot of what we attribute to those two actually belongs to luck as well.

Read Arrian’s account of the Battle of the Granicus. Alexander rushes into battle against the judgment of his wise old general Parmenion. You will see that Alexander comes within inches of death in his very first battle! Had he been killed (which he easily could have been), would we then consider him a poor, arrogant general, rather than one of the best of all time? What a role luck plays, then!

Perhaps your experience in war has been much different than mine, but in my experience we constantly tried something, saw if it worked, and kept at it if it did, abandoned it if it didn’t.

I have no doubt you are intelligent, but to think that the development of nations like India and Pakistan could have been foreseen in any reliable way is a shortsighted mistake that many intelligent people make. I do not agree that the Brits merely “thinking about it” a little longer would have made a lick of difference. Things may have turned out differently, but they would have equal chance of being worse as they would better.”


Posted by Paul Knepper on October 3, 2007

Tom Peters posted this on October 4, 2007, in Strategies.
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