April 26, 2009
All too often, we hear “warnings” but proceed without heed. Sometimes it is a small voice inside one’s head that says, “things do not add up,” sometimes it is a real warning (do not use lawnmower as hedge trimmer or bodily injury might result), and sometimes it is a recitation of all possible observed “rare events,” such as on drug labels.
Two weeks ago, my doctor prescribed me the antibiotic levofloxacin for a sinus infection. As he prescribed it for me, he hestitated because I am an avid athlete and he said that it was known to be associated with spontaneous tendon rupture. Although I was warned, once I felt better I did not think about that warning as I returned to my regular repertoire of sports. Last Thursday morning, as I perilously dangled after I lost my footing on a V2 bouldering problem, I had to strain hard to regain my footing and overgripped my left hand/arm to finish the route. Later that afternoon, I could no longer open my car door with my left hand and the previously faded memory of the “tendon rupture” warning had resurfaced.
When faced with warnings, there is a tendency to discount that which causes us to deviate from plan. As busy humans (never enough time!) we are risk averse especially to the loss of time. We have an ability to proceed with any number of justifications: the probability is small (rare event), the concern does not apply (no associated risk factors), and/or the risk is overstated, because we have not deliberately considered the unfavorable outcome’s impact on time.
Deliberately planning for undesirable outcomes based upon “warnings” is the long view approach. By including contingency for the unexpected, we are more objective in dealing with risk.
I have since learned that strenuous sports activities predispose patients to quinolone-related tendon rupture [Gold and Igra, “Levofloxacin-Induced Tendon Rupture: A Case Report and Review of the Literature,” The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice 16:458-460 (2003)]. Yikes! Had I been sufficiently deliberate to more fully understand the potential for tendon rupture and had planned for a twelve week (or more!) tendon recovery, I would not have been bouldering on Thursday morning. Swimming would have been a much better long view choice!
The good news is that my elbow pain is already better (probably unrelated to the drug concern). But, nevertheless, now that I know the full implications, I will not be placing high loads on my tendons while taking levofloxacin again!
I am duly reminded to take the long view and plan for contigency in order to be more objective in dealing with risk. I hope you are too!
April 13, 2009
Weekends do not get much better than the combination of snow, sun, fresh air, mountains, and family. Although there are always many enjoyable moments in a ski weekend, the ones that are most memorable are hearty laughs after being flung into the snow from catching an edge or while collecting scattered poles and skis, after missing a turn in the moguls. It might seem counterintuitive to glorify the negative, but I know that if I am not occasionally coming unglued, I am not pushing myself to get better. After each fall, I get a few laughs and a little more practiced being at my edge.
It is simply not possible to push yourself to be more, better, and/or stronger, without making errors, mistakes, and/or stumbles. The key to successful growth is willingness to laugh at imperfection and error – recognize the positive in the negative and not take everything too seriously.
The same advice applies to the business of technology development. When trying new things, running challenging experiments, and testing uncertain outcomes, it would be rare indeed to always have things go flawlessly. So, take the long view and laugh a little. Stay positive and be willing to try again – chances are “round two” will benefit significantly from what was learned on “attempt one.”
One of my best laughs in the lab occurred when I worked closely with a colleague to test prototype equipment for mixing viruses and cells for an infection process. Our goal was to demonstrate that the new equipment functioned comparably to a manual process. It was a demanding randomized experiment that took hours to set-up and execute. On that day, after a long morning of set-up, my colleague and I shared a hood all afternoon, working in tandem to complete all of the infections efficiently. As we neared the end of the experiment, all of a sudden my colleague looked at me slightly panicked and announced that we had forgotten to properly attach the cells to the equipment – we had just added alcohol (instead of cells) to all the viruses of the prototype test conditions. At that moment we looked at each other and just started to laugh really hard. The laughter broke the anxiety, recognizing the reality of new terrain. When we redid the experiment, we were more fluid in our execution and more confident in our abilities. Overall, the project was extremely successful and we gained from our ability to be positive. To celebrate our accomplishments, I awarded my colleague the “Littlest Bartender Award” for helping those viruses party that afternoon (to this day we still laugh about it!).
If you cannot laugh at yourself, then your friends and colleagues cannot laugh with you. 😉
On the ski hill, I may only occasionally have a tight, fast, clean mogul run, but I will forever keep pushing myself to achieve it and will keep laughing each time I come unglued! Although the smiling “wipeout” photo could be me, it is my son – I had the iPhone!
March 14, 2009
As a veteran of understanding complex systems, it is not terribly surprising that sometimes the unexpected occurs. It is not so much that humans have poor intuition, it is more that we 1) oversimplify (we focus on a specific element and not the whole), 2) we underestimate the affect of randomness, 3) we do not account for a changes in underlying assumptions of our mental models, and 4) we overvalue the expected outcomes because we become emotionally attached to the outcome.
As a trivial example of the unexpected, I am whining about my sore hands after having returned to running and climbing after a month of ankle injury hiatus (the climbing calluses on my hands receded and my hands became soft). So even though I expected to be most challenged by my ankle, it is actually my hands that are unexpectedly sore — I did not anticipate the whole picture.
As a really BIG example of the unexpected, the core of the financial mess that the world is currently experiencing can be traced to an oversimplified quantitative model that failed to account for changes in market assumptions – see Wired (March 2009): “A Formula for Disaster.” (Very interesting yet short article).
My experience in managing complex systems coincides with all of the wisdom and experience of others before me — take the long view: pay attention to the capacity constraint of the system, be wary of process steps with similar capacity to the constraint either upstream or downstream (they could easily become the constraint), and stay aware of external factors that can impact the system. The most important advice is to assume that Murphy exists and plan for managing it. To that end, if you do not have good intuition under different scenarios and want to build it to plan for it (for example, recovery from disruption), I recommend discrete event simulation with Simul8.
I am sure that there are other reasons than the four (4) I listed for the unexpected to occur. I invite you to add reasons 5, 6, 7….
March 3, 2009
Each of us only gets one body. From an early age we are trained to care for ourselves — brush & floss our teeth, eat right, exercise regularly, and rest appropriately after illness or injury. Although most of us do all of these things regularly, it is the last one that can be the most vexing. It is challenging because injury and illness are inherently unplanned, undesirable, and unintended. Recovering from injury or illness requires expenditures of time and effort to recover that would not be required if everything had “gone to plan.” So there is opportunity to be bitter and angry. The reality is that there is risk in sports (one cause of injury) and being around others (one cause of illness transmission). It is the payoff: fun in sports or the creation/nurturing of a social/professional connection, that makes the risk worthwhile.
In an analogy to business, routine care is required for operations — develop products, purchase raw materials, manufacture products, sell products, account for the flow of money and products, and take time to recover from setbacks. As in illness or injury, setbacks require expenditures of time and effort that would not be required if everything had “gone to plan.” Similarly, there is risk in business — if it was easy, it would not be a long-term business. It is the payoff: money (in a for-profit business), that makes the risk worthwhile.
In both cases (body or business), routine care requires planning, precautions, and prudence. Yet these cannot prevent all setbacks; they minimize the severity, duration, and frequency. Thus, in order to be truly successful, we need to take the long view and be disciplined in our recovery from setbacks. We must expect setbacks, plan to expend time and effort to recover (relative to the risk of the payoff), and not be negative or rushed in our recovery execution. One way is to buffer projects from uncertainty by realistic planning, disciplined tracking, and adequate resource deployment for recovery using Goldratt’s Critical Chain, all the while staying, persistent, passionate, and positive!
On a personal level, I am working hard to recover an ankle sprain (a moment’s inattention to a pothole in a running trail left my ankle discolored, swollen, and sore). Since I want to enjoy the wind in my face (from running) for as long as I live (the long view), I am in rehab (toe-raises, gentle stretches, and swimming). Only nine (9) more days until I can run on my ankle again! But who is counting?!