Risks and the Aftermath

by Krishna on May 6, 2007

This weekend, I have been reading “Survival of the Sickest”, a medical book by Sharon Moalem and Jonathan Prince. A very interesting book, it explores how certain unwanted medical conditions in our body, like hemochromatosis and anemia, are the result of evolution — they protect the carriers from much more virulent diseases like plague and malaria.

What am I doing reading this book? Well, the book looked very fascinating. I thought it could be clubbed under the category “fun”, but now it also seems to be very educational. Here is an example from the book about celery:

Organic [celery] farmers don’t use synthetic pesticides… leaving their growing stalks vulnerable to attack by insects and fungi… they [the plants] respond by producing massive amounts of psoralen [a toxin]. By keeping poison off the plant… end with lots of poison in the plant.

(Bold text and text in square brackets mine)

The reason I am blogging about the book is that its theme has something similar to what happens with risks in personal and professional lives. This has got to do with exposure to risk and the aftermath. I will use management examples.

In our life, we are shielded from many problems by others — our parents, our managers, our religion or culture, and the government. For examples, managers frequently hide their technical employees from end users, because the former don’t have any social skills and the latter understand less technology.

While this may provide temporary relief, in the long run, lack of exposure to difficulties and troubles prevents building up the necessary strengths to cope when such protections are removed. End users continue to make beginner mistakes. The technical folks never fix their behavioral deficiencies. We see employees failing miserably in their initial periods as managers because they are unable to cope with the new responsibilities.

Exposure to problems results in the persons adapting themselves. That is why the incremental development model is so powerful for software development because it exposes the team to actual bugs during the construction and helps them avoid such problems in future iterations.

But wait — that is not all. The problem is that new behaviors learnt to fight problems continue to remain even when the problems cease to exist. And the new behavior or strategies become problems in their own right.

For example, consider the case of a manager who has been given a technically weak team to produce certain deliverables. He quickly adapts by intense training and gets things done by applying great pressure and micro-managing the whole affair. But then, the next engagement is with a better, more motivated team. The tactics that worked with the old team fail miserably.

The fundamental lesson is that tactics to avoid immediate failure may not be well-suited for long-term benefit. That is why you should stay away from religious adherence to a particular methodology in business management. Some work long-term, some work short-term. The true manager knows which to pick when.

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