Most systems don't fail because of a single catastrophic event. Readers of books like 'Into Thin Air' will know that major disasters are usually the result of a succession of mistakes that compound into a horrific tragedy. For instance, the Mt. Everest disaster of 1996 covered by 'Into Thin Air' cost eight lives, including those of two of the best-known Everest guides of the time, because of a succession of missteps. Inattention to the weather, a missing radio, friction between the lead sherpas of two cooperating climbing parties, high profile climbers focused more on media attention than on safe climbing ... none of these were disastrous by themselves, but taken together, and with the added stress of a sudden but relatively mild storm, they led to catastrophe. And it is noteworthy that these missteps can be blamed squarely on the people at the center of the tragedy.
I nearly lost my life last Sunday, Feb 26, 2006, through a similar chain of events. The full story is told here, but in a nutshell I was blown off my racing kayak by sudden storm winds while paddling solo in San Francisco Bay, got separated from my boat and was drifting away from shore in strong currents and offshore winds, and rescued from a death by hypothermia only because the last couple of boats still out happened to notice me in the water. Another ten minutes and I would have bought it, a victim of many small errors and omissions that summed up to disaster (ignoring the forecasted storm and paddling in open water, not wearing an ankle leash to attach myself to the boat, not carrying my cell phone, not staying closer to land, etc.)
I had little time - and interest - in drawing larger lessons from my experience while drifting in the frigid Bay waters, but after thawing out I contemplated how companies, too, arrive at catastrophe via creeping mistakes that fall into a few broad categories:
- Ignoring reality - at their peril: a kayaker in a puny kevlar shell cannot shape the weather, and a startup with its minuscule resources cannot shape the market. Sunny skies an hour ago, or deep pocketed enterprise buyers last year, are no excuse for foregoing rapid repositioning in the face of a storm in the sky or the market.
- Risks without rewards: mountaineers take risks with every step on the mountain, and startups take risks from the moment they're formed. But avoidable risks - risks of inattention, risks that promise no reward - magnify your chances of failure. So bolt in that extra protection, take out that venture debt when it's offered, and resolve to take only those risks that have a clear payoff.
- Hubris: there's a fine line between steely confidence and overarching hubris; the former lets you overcome unanticipated obstacles, while the latter unnerves you in the face of foreseeable hazards. Good entrepreneurs like to control their destiny; great entrepreneurs know that they only have control over their own actions.
- Ego-driven goal-setting: Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, the world-famous guides who lost their lives on Mt. Everest in 1996, were driven by their egos, and media attention surrounding their expeditions, to keep climbing much after their pre-determined turnaround time. They lost sight of the larger goal of surviving to fight another day; similarly, so many startups are driven by ego to dominate the world, or kill Microsoft, or take out Google, when the real goal is to attract a large audience whose needs they can profitable serve. Killing Microsoft can always be done in Phase 2 - if you survive Phase 1.
- It's Nobody's Problem: teams that tackle challenging missions need crisp lines of responsibility; if two people aren't sure which of them will be responsible for carrying the VHF radio on an open-water kayaking expedition, it's likely that neither will carry it. And if the VP of Sales and the VP of Marketing aren't sure who's really on the line for lead generation, chances are your company won't get a whole lot of new leads.