Working On and Off the Edge

9 Jul

“You don’t turn a crew onto a score and not expect any heat”. These are the words, more or less, of the Grand Theft Auto anti-hero, Trevor Philips, as he shares his wisdom on decision making, risk and uncertainty. Trevor, an experienced bank robber, high jacker, drug dealer (amongst others) is reflecting on the consequences of making dramatic decisions which carry huge amounts of risk and lead to a very uncertain future. In Trevor’s world, the upside of decisions is closely intertwined with the downside-if you want the rewards, you personally have to endure the risks; you have to be prepared to take the heat. Being exposed to heat (in the Trevor context, the inevitable FBI investigation) is a drastic lesson in self-awareness; if it’s you having to deal personally with the consequences of your own decisions, then you’re going to be very focused on the quality of your plans and your ability to cope, if and when the heat arrives. This sharp and immediate connection between decision and action is “working on the edge”.

By contrast, in organisational life, decisions can be implemented with significant distance between those who make decisions and those who are carrying the decisions out, and this includes the consequences. In other words, not everyone who makes the decisions gets to feel the heat. This lack of connection between decision and consequence can have a number of negative effects. The ability to adapt becomes blunted, plans become too abstract, communication slows, and certain types of culture can edit feedback and erase bad news stories. It’s a little like trying to explain what a landscape looks like to someone on the end of a cell phone. The person listening to the description gets a general image of the landscape, but they are essentially matching the description to the nearest available analogue from memory, they are essentially thinking “it sounds like landscape B which I saw last year”. Without actually seeing the landscape, they are robbed of the subtle and nuanced detail. This detail might be vital feedback, but if the person describing the landscape misses some of this subtle detail out, for whatever reason, then feedback is compromised. The describer could be simply describing the landscape they feel the listener wants to hear, they could be focused only on the detail which has important meaning to them, they could be editing the scene in a variety of different ways and for a variety of different reasons. When there is distance between the planner and the implementer, the same limits are in place as those experienced by our landscape describer and listener. This is “working off the edge”. Here is a quote from a senior manager who was on the receiving end of a change management strategy which was designed off the edge

“It will never work (the strategy) because it has no bearing on how things actually work in this department. It’s been designed by the executive like your pushing around shapes and thinking-this could go here, and then we can put this one in there. Our director knows this, but executive went ahead and said this is how things are going to be, and too many important people have too much of a stake in looking competent to the board, so we’ve been told we’re stuck with it”.

Examining people and populations who work on the edge can reveal both interesting and useful lessons for anyone who manages uncertainty and change. The people who work on the edge have stories about their experiences which reveal the risks of a closed mind and the benefits of adaption. Because these people have personally experienced the downside of their decisions, they are able to provide lessons which can be used to bring decision making closer to the edge. So who works on the edge, in addition to Trevor Phillips? Start-up founders work on the edge, so do extreme athletes, branches of the military and police, areas of medicine and health, and explorers. Below are two articles written by the explorer Cathy O’Dowd, which have been featured on the Echo Breaker blog. In these articles are examples of how luck can be mistaken for skill, how examining worst case scenarios can be used to generate adaptive strategies and significantly, how making some decisions must involve an acknowledgement and acceptance that the ultimate price could be paid.

It’s not necessary to work on the edge to create an adaptive mind-set. It’s possible to improve our ability to adapt by moving our decisions closer to the edge. We can achieve this by ensuring there is closer distance between planners and implementers, that we fully understand the environment which our decisions effect, but most of all, we should imagine that we are personally affected by the worst consequences of each decision we make; we all need to ask if we could deal with the heat if and when it comes.


Some risks can’t managed away, if you’re going to make decisions in environments which carry dread risk, you should be prepared for the consequences

The benefits of an adaptive strategy in high risk and fast changing environments




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