Part of Stuff Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure, currently free on Kindle, is defining what a delusion event is and how it pays a role in bringing about disaster.
A delusion event is more commonly called a “close call”. How often have we had one? Did we change our behavior afterward to avoid another one?
We often look at narrow escapes or near misses as ‘fortunate’ events where disaster was averted; indeed, we get to the point where we normalize near misses. Instead, we need to look at these ‘fortunate’ events as cascade events where we came close to catastrophe and were simply fortunate that we didn’t hit the final event. Relying on luck is a very dangerous mindset yet we immerse ourselves in it on a daily basis. We often call it ‘dodging the bullet’ forgetting that when a bullet hits, the results are catastrophic to the target.
We need to focus on cascade events, see their negative potential, and reduce their occurrence. A cascade event that doesn’t lead to a final event we will label a delusion event. A cascade event and delusion event are exactly the same: the only difference is that a delusion event doesn’t result in a final event.
Delusion events lead us into delusional thinking: that we will continue to dodge the bullet by doing nothing. In fact, a delusion event, where something goes wrong, but doesn’t lead to the final event, reinforces our complacency to do nothing about correcting a delusion event and increases our risk of a final event, a catastrophe. We take the delusion event as the status quo, not an aberration. Delusion events lead to the normalization of unacceptable risk. For a very simple example, the further you drive with the check engine light on in your car, the more you think it’s normal for that light to be on. This is called normalization by Diane Vaughan in her book The Challenger Launch Decision.(1) We’ll discuss this catastrophe as one of our seven in the second book in this series, focusing on organizational thinking about delusion events.
How many times have you been in a hotel or restaurant or store and the fire alarm goes off? How many times did you hurry to the exit? Rather, didn’t you, and everyone around you, with no smoke or fire noted, stand around, and wait for someone to actually announce what’s going on? We’ve been desensitized by false alarms to the point where the alarm serves little purpose any more.
The Harvard Business Review did a study in 2011 (2) and found that delusion events (multiple near misses) preceded every disaster and business crisis they studied over a seven-year period. Besides delusional thinking leading to normalization, the other problem is outcome bias. If you flip a coin six times and it come up heads six times, even though statistically rare (1 chance in 64 attempts), you will tend to start focusing on the result, believing all coin tosses end up heads. While we know this isn’t true, we tend to base our probabilities of future occurrences not on the statistics of reality but on our experiences.
This is called heuristics and is at the root of many disasters. Hueristics is experience-based techniques for learning and problem solving that give a solution which isn’t necessarily optimal. We generalize based on the things we value most: our own experience and information related to us from sources we trust. Think how many ‘truths’ you have heard that turn out to be nothing more than an urban legend or a superstition. Yet we base many of our daily and emergency actions around these.
A small example from The Green Beret Preparation and Survival Guide: every so often there is a news article about someone in a desperate survival situation who claims drinking their urine helped them make it through. That’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. But it’s one of those stories that gets repeated enough, until we believe it to be true. Because we only hear from survivors, who lived in spite of doing the wrong thing.
It is human nature that we focus on successful outcomes much more than negative ones. It’s irrational, but that’s part of being human. In the same way, managers and leaders are taught to plan for success, not failure, since it’s believed planning for failure is negative thinking. In fact, I would submit that many people are part of a cult of positive thinking that often excludes reality.
The good news is we tend to be predictably irrational and understanding our tendency to make a cascade event a delusion event, is the first step in correcting this problem.