I was watching the movie Valkyrie over the weekend; it was about the true story of the failed attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler in 1944. Unfortunately all the conspirators were caught and executed. In one part of the movie, a general who was supposed to form the new government once Hitler was dead, mentioned, “This is a military operation – anything can go wrong.” Ultimately, everything did go wrong and the rebellion was quashed. This got me thinking – the operation was planned by expert strategists, very smart people – the leader who planned the attempt was a colonel with nobility; and yet the plan went wrong. So I was thinking, what can we learn from this, and how can SME leaders overcome “anything can go wrong”.
Plan to be wrong
It is not unlike SME leaders to think that they are right. But being right is really what the generals thought they were. They thought so much that they would be right that they didn’t fathom the possibility that Hitler was not dead; and would rise up and strike down the rebellion. The same should be for us. We need to consider that we will always be wrong, and through that, we should think of how to overcome it.
Bracketing is the process of understanding the limits of a decision. By listing the assumptions of the option, and then testing the limits of the decision by making all the assumptions right, and then all the assumptions wrong, we establish the bracket of the decision, and from there, see how we can react to it. If we cannot stomach the variability of the decision, then we may have to find new options. We can also look at the worst-case scenario and try to alter its course by new constraints to the decision, limiting the variability and helping it be more successful.
In the movie, the perpetrator did not ensure that Hitler was dead before going about his plan. After all, he assumed that everyone in the room couldn’t have survived the bomb blast. But as fate would have it, the table was so robust that it cushioned a lot of the blast energy, and Hitler did survive. His survival caused the unraveling of the plan, and its ultimate failure. When we are dealing with decisions in uncertainty, we need to ensure, not assume. After all, if we had bracketed, we know the need to be certain. Indeed in another part of the movie, a 3-star general was mentioning this, “In periods of uncertainty, we should do nothing.” While I am no supporter of doing nothing, I am a supporter of being more certain. Hence, we should always ensure that we are heading down a certain path, and take the appropriate actions; than to assume something has happened and later find out you are wrong.
While we are not faced with a military action, anything can still go wrong with our decisions. It is important for us to plan to be wrong, to limit our variability, and to ensure, not assume. Since history will repeat itself, it is important to inoculate ourselves from it.