Breaking Bad and Risk Exposure

16 Feb

I was reading recently how the writers of Breaking Bad came up with the storylines for the show. The show itself is a masterpiece of decision making, risk exposure and managing uncertainty, so it was fascinating to hear how the writing team produced such complex and deadly strategies for the characters to solve such seemingly impossible problems. In this article I’ll argue almost any individual, team or organisation could apply the Breaking Bad writers methodology.

Ok, if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad there are going to be some mild spoilers. Breaking Bad is about a High School Chemistry teacher, Walter White, who discovers he is terminally ill and attempts to pay for his treatment and provide for his family by cooking crystal meth. Walt is no ordinary teacher, he was an outstanding grad student at a leading university and a founder of a start up company, built on his research, which went on to be worth billions of dollars…..without him. When the show joins him, Walt is a massive under achiever and a buried genius, his involvement in the crystal meth business literally resurrects this genius and points it in a criminal direction. So, to demonstrate Walt’s genius the writers had to provide him with some extreme scenarios.

In the article I read, one of the team was discussing an episode where Walt and his “business” partner Jesse were trapped in a Recreational Vehicle, which they were using as a mobile meth lab, which was trapped in a junk yard, being circled by a DA agent, who Walt happened to be related to- that’s an extreme scenario.

The writer was describing their (the writers) methodology, explaining they would come up with the most challenging and extreme situations they could imagine and then sit down as a team and try and solve them. Apparently it took them two weeks to come up with a solution to the RV, junkyard, DEA agent scenario and when they finally cracked it they were just about to throw in the towel and change the direction of the episode. And this is a methodology anyone can apply.

I’ve argued before that risk exposure can beat research in providing feedback which drives innovation, creativity and decision making. The risk exposure means the person or organisation is getting first order feedback, they are experiencing it, and as a consequence have to manage it, solve it, improvise and adapt. This is the opposite of reviewing reports, creating a plan and passing it down a line for someone else to experience. The feedback received from this will be second, third order, and diluted, sanitised into an e mail, an agenda item, and another report. Throw in organisational culture and the space between planners and implementers can become measured in miles. I’ll repeat what I said in my last article, management by walking about, for example, is a form of risk exposure to improve first order feedback; although it still doesn’t bypass organisational culture issues.

What I’ve argued above is a polemic to make a point. The truth is you do need some structure, procedures and processes to stop an organisation from falling over, and so does an individual. But this cannot come at the expense of a risk starvation diet. This is where the Breaking Bad methodology can be applied, come up with the most extreme scenarios imaginable and sit down as an individual or a team, and try to solve them or think of ways to manage them. It’s a method of driving innovation, spotting potential weaknesses in routines, testing the adaptability of plans and broadening everyone’s frame of reference when discussing risks, improvisation and uncertainty. And it beats buying an RV, setting up a meth lab, driving it into a junkyard and calling the police to test your ability to improvise under a pressure…

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