Let’s Call It The “We Can’t Keep Up” Syndrome

Here’s what I’m trying to say:  we don’t yet know how to do everything we are trying to do.  And that can be a real problem.

The totals are now beyond what most of us could have only imagined — and feared.  The total number of gallons of oil that have spewed into the Gulf from the BP disaster has probably surpassed 200 million gallons  (The figures are not precise — I did the math from this web site).  This is 18x the number of gallons from the Exxon Valdez disaster.  It seems like such a long time ago that Tony Hayward, and Haley Barbour, and others, stated that the Gulf was a big ocean and would easily disperse the oil harmlessly.  They were, sadly, wrong.  We have learned that lesson the hard way.

And the new iPhone is running into turmoil that is building day after day.  Partly because, in my opinion, AT&T was not yet ready to provide the infrastructure for all that technology.  It was too much innovation and implementation too soon.  The capacity to execute can not quite keep up with the needs of the era, with ever more challenging products and projects.  Consider this excerpt of AT&T CTO: ‘We will move heaven and Earth’ to improve our network by Anthony Ha (full article here):

When VentureBeat Editor in Chief Matt Marshall got a chance to ask AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan a few questions on-stage, he asked what kinds of issues are holding back network quality. It’s a little bit of everything, Donovan replied. With a flood of new chipsets, phones, and applications, the traditional device testing and rollout methods have “broken down.” In addition, AT&T recently faced a shortage of the components needed to improve its network.

“I’ll tell you the things it’s not been,” Donovan said. “It’s not been capital, it’s not been conviction and commitment.” AT&T “will move heaven and Earth” to meet its customers’ growing data needs, he said.

I have blogged before (a few times) about the formulation from Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, re. the two great problems:  ignorance and ineptitude.  Here’s the key quote:

We have just two reasons that we may fail.
The first is ignorance – we may err because science has given us only a partial understanding of the world and how it works.  There are skyscrapers we do not yet know how to build, snowstorms we cannot predict, heart attacks we still haven’t learned how to stop. The second type of failure the philosophers call ineptitude – because in these instances the knowledge exists, yet we fail to apply it correctly  This is the skyscraper that is built wrong and collapses, the snowstorm whose signs the meteorologist just plain missed, the stab wound from a weapon the doctors forgot to ask about.
For nearly all of history, people’s lives have been governed primarily by ignorance.

But there is a third problem, one that does not quite have a name yet.  Let’s call it the “we can’t keep up” syndrome.  Maybe it is a subset of one of the two by Gawande.  But it presents a unique challenge to the modern business environment.

It is not entirely new.  In the early days of television, there were television set makers dependent on television networks dependent on television makers.  It was a circle of interdependency, a complex set of interconnections, with officially disconnected but very interdependent companies needing every company in the mix to keep up.  And keeping up was tough.

Just in the last year, television stations have switched to HD, needing the cable channels to provide slots for their new HD channels, with the cable channels needing the stations to broadcast in HD.  Everything is so interconnected, interdependent.  Everyone has to succeed for anyone to succeed – one has to succeed for all to possibly succeed.

And then, the ripple effects.  There is now no doubt that people working in companies with much better safety records than BP are paying the price for BP’s failures.  Jobs are leaving the Gulf for other oceans across the globe.  The moratorium, which many object to (but – can you imagine if a second well had this kind of disaster right now?) means that costly equipment has to go where there is work.  And then the equipment will be run by a new set of workers.

But here is the deal.  Companies, entire industries, need to learn, adapt, innovate as they go…and it is tough to keep up.

Maybe the problem is not incompetence.  Maybe the problem is not ineptitude (though there were serious mistakes made).  Maybe it is simply that we are in a perpetual growth/innovation/need-to-get-it-right era, and there will always be a need for version 2.0 and 2.8 and 7.0 in nearly every arena.

If all it means is that I have to wait for the next software update on my iPhone, I’m ok with that.  But if it destroys the environment on the Gulf Coast for hundreds of miles, then it becomes a much more serious matter.

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