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The tide – the ideal metaphor for far too much

We are perpetually racing around the sun at over 100,000 km/h. Simultaneously, the Earth is rotating on its axis at over 1600 km/h – and we feel nothing. However, the Earth’s rotation and the constellation of the sun and the moon regularly create perturbations that put the oceans into oscillation. Those who have visited the oceans’ coasts could observe the wave that is slopping around the world. The tidal range, the strength of ebb and flood, is additionally influenced by weather conditions. The water level fluctuates by up to 15 meters, depending on the region. And then there is the great flood – a story passed down in various cultural circles. The flood sets the starting point for a new time after everything undesired is flooded and disappeared in the water masses. The flood has become a synonym for far too much due to its abundance.

A closer look reveals some interesting points of view.

  • Term
    The Earth is covered by 71% water. These 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water are kept in motion by the sun’s constellation and the moon. The tides consist of falling water, the ebb, and rising water, the flood. They alternate twice in 25-hours. In addition, the term flood is generally used for large water masses and floods of all kinds, e.g., information flood, image flood, mail flood, request flood, goods flood, stimulus flood.
    In a figurative sense, the term stands for far too much.
  • Trigger
    Floods are caused by constellations of the sun and the moon, natural disasters, and man-made influences. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, or heavy rainfall result in torrential water masses in a wide variety of places. In the Anthropocene era, humanity creates damage to nature by sealing soils with urban and road construction, plants, and industrial agriculture. It creates an imbalance that leads to ongoing climate change due to the Earth’s steady warming and climate shifting. Melting ice at the polar ice caps and significant glacial regions lead to rising sea levels that threaten megacities, such as Calcutta, Mumbai, and Guangzhou, as well as Miami, New York, and Tokyo.
    In general, floods result from far too much.
  • Strength
    The water level determines the extent of a flood. Since the height of the water level in itself says nothing, a reference point is required. In the case of water, we differentiate between mean water level, mean low water, and mean high water. The highest high water is the biggest value ever measured. Besides, historic flood zones are identified. Construction activity in these areas is risky. However, after long periods without flooding, this does not deter people from building houses and streets again in these areas. A frightening example is the Fukushima region, where houses were built in known floodplains and promptly deluged again. Dam structures protect vulnerable areas as long as they are high enough. However, sea levels are rising due to climate change, requiring more extensive dam installations – until the water can no longer be kept out. The habitats of more than 250 million people, especially in the East of Asia and along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast, are at risk of flooding in the foreseeable future. For the other floods (see above), levels still need to be established to speak of a flood.
    In a figurative sense, there is also a need for metrics for far too much.
  • Consequences
    The effects of a flood are not limited to the actual flooding but also include the long-term aftermath. While earlier floods were passed down through gossip, today, we see videos that show what happens almost in real-time. In 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake, triggering a tsunami that claimed more than 220 thousand lives and was immediately in the news and on the Internet. As a result, drinking water sources were contaminated, 1.7 million people were left homeless, fertile farmland washed away, and entire swaths of land became uninhabitable. Within a year, an estimated $13.8 billion was allocated to rebuild the affected regions. Today, 300 fully automated, land-based monitoring stations provide an early warning system. Floods also threaten all types of technical infrastructure. In Fukushima, unexpectedly severe waves led to a super hazard and still radioactively contaminated landscapes in the Sendai region. In exceptional cases, floods also create habitat. The annual flooding of the Nile provided the fertile soil and moisture that this early advanced civilization needed.
    In the common parlance of far too much, floods overload and stress the people affected.
  • Meaning
    The flood has especially the meaning of far too much. This metaphor is applicable when something happens, is done or developed, is approaching, increases, or transforms. It overflows whenever the same thing keeps growing – e.g., phones are ringing incessantly, increasingly more emails arrive; decisions are requested more frequently; a message spreads virally on the Internet; a rising number of customers storm the shop; computer net use explodes; minor improvements challenge an overall system. The image of a flood is mainly used in different areas of communication – the flood of data that buries insights; the flood of informing needs that blur clear messages; the flood of demand that leads to a large number of offers; the flood of problems in which the fragmentation of interests drowns those who suffer. In most cases, floods are frightening. For this reason, the term should be accompanied by benefits: many requests are a sign of interest; mass decisions are a sign of momentum; massive amounts of data are a basis for expert analysis; multi-faceted problems are mastered with a structured approach.
    It is, in most cases, commonly true that far too much is better than too little.

Bottom line: The flood is a bad image that arouses fears with its far too much. The term can be found for thousands of years as viral memes in a wide variety of cultures. Most triggers lead to severe threats to which we can only react. In the end, a flood causes significant damage. With appropriate preparation and follow-up, these can be mitigated as much as possible and eventually overcome. The same applies in a figurative sense to the abstract floods of perception, thought, communication, and action, leading to fear and distress in those affected. This makes the flood an ideal metaphor for far too much.

Planned futility – eyes shut and get through

The absurd business acceleration and geographic dispersion and the flood of data in the VUKA world force executives to think in new ways. Trapped in their attention horizon, they have limited foresight and an inability to master cultural realities and the data deluge. Short-term (mis-)successes determine their fate. It does not matter if leaders ignore accessible data, do not find available insights, or fail to foresee circumstances. Eventually, it leads to decisions that pursue modest intentions without considering possible side effects. Nonetheless, the top team is expected to produce impactful decisions and outcomes. It develops plans to avoid individual disadvantages that seek change while holding on to the existing to avoid personal risks. This approach has come to be known as Planned Futility.

Since the last remaining raison d’être for leaders are their directional decisions, they must face the question of how to manage unintended consequences. The following four leverage points expand the awareness. They reduce the occurrence and downsides that appear out of nowhere.

  • Aligned, although not targeted?
    Simple planning relates solely to the desired outcomes – What? To what degree? By when? With what budget? That way, an orientation is given, but the essential aspects of targeting are missing, i.e., not considering basic conditions to avoid unintended consequences. It leads to unwanted surprises. It is smarter to consider as many dimensions of the initial situation as possible (e.g., with STEP). (1) To ensure that one has sufficient knowledge regarding the task, a Google search of the topic is recommended. (2) During preparation, the support of the relevant stakeholders must be obtained for having sufficient room for maneuver. (3) It helps to review from the affected parties’ point of view for considering their interests at an early stage and make them to people involved. On this basis, the probability of achieving the desired results increases.
  • Active, although the time is not used?
    The ever-flatter structures of companies increase the number of decisions managers take. The fear of making mistakes causes some to freeze. In doing so, they overlook that time moves on and that even the avoidance of decision-making are momentous decisions. In order not to leave the decision-making to others, leaders have to keep moving. In the process, the horizon of attention shifts incessantly, and the original findings lose their significance. Intermediate outcomes or the interplay of building blocks may be affected. Leaders must revise their decisions to reflect the evolving interests of stakeholders. The results are decisions that lead to plan changes that must be communicated to all stakeholders and affected parties. These adjustments further ensure that unintended consequences are avoided whenever possible.
  • Monitoring, although conclusions are not drawn?
    A popular solution seems to be comprehensive reporting. Instead of enabling solutions, vast amounts of measurement points are established. The stakeholders must deliver them with great effort in ever shorter periods. If qualitative aspects are involved, adequate surveys are set up to generate the metrics. In the end, one gets a vast amount of measurement data that is difficult to utilize and even does not result in actions through appropriate traffic lights. We can only hold seven-plusminus-two chunks in short-term memory. This means that we cannot handle this flood of data at all. For this reason, we should take the time to find the essential checkpoints that let us see the progress or developing needs for action. Since many influencing factors are not accessible to neutral observers, an intensive exchange of ideas with all those involved is crucial for leaders. Management by Wandering Around is a prerequisite for it. However, the collected findings must subsequently be put into a format (e.g., using a satisfaction scale or a heat map) understood by those involved. With manageable reports, you lower the occurrence of unintended consequences.
  • Assessing, although there are no sanctions?
    The desire to assess leadership quality creates new performance assessment models (e.g., Feedback, 360-degree Assessment). The focus here is on measurement and less on effects. Looking at large companies, you often see that even measuring is canceled as soon as the results become nasty for the individuals. How detailed leaders are examined is more important than the consequences. Except: Rewards are in place. What is missing in most cases are sanctions that tangibly punish misconduct. Why should leaders try hard if they do not have to expect any disadvantages in case of failure? Beware! It is about the leaders, whose role models and leadership are the remaining tasks. Failure due to poor preparation, visible inactivity, and lack of visibility are building blocks of homegrown leadership failure. Without sanctions, decision-makers lack the inducements, ensuring that there are a few unintended consequences as possible.

Bottom line: For artisans, it is easy. Mistakes are immediately visible, audible, or tangible. The soft tasks of leadership can be approached with a similar mindset. An example provides the German federal government’s handling of Corona. The actions are focused on providing sufficient intensive care beds. The unintended consequences in the economy and society are ignored. Every effort is made to contain the spread of the virus. In a year, nothing significant has changed. For example, it has not been achieved to collect the incidence even on weekends. The evaluation of the situation leads to ever-changing limits, but not to effective measures against the active dissidents. As a result, any pleas fall flat, and industries face a broad wave of bankruptcies. The federal government’s unilateral action is an excellent example of planned futility – eyes shut and get through.