Kubla Khan is Always With Us

Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned his famous poem Kubla Khan, a Vision of a Dream under the influence of a few grains of opium taken for dysentery. One can only wonder what the fifth great Khan himself was under when he ordered the building of 4,000 ships in a year for the second invasion of Japan. Perhaps he was only drunk on power. Nevertheless, it too was a catastrophic failure in which nearly everyone perished in a typhoon.

The Japanese myth had it that it was magical wind that did in Kubla Khan’s fleet. Modern archaeology tells a slightly different story. The grandson of Genghis Khan’s order led to shoddy craftsmanship, and using river vessels with flat bottoms to meet the artificial deadline. When placed under the duress of a typhoon, a statistical outlier, the vessels lacked the required design and therefore resilience to withstand the storm.

Again and again people plan based on best case scenarios ignoring the outliers whose impact is catastrophic. Completion dates are imposed based on the perception of what timeline is acceptable to the boss, or blind bottom up task by task time estimates. This carries on today, whether it is ambitious government, ambitious business, or ambitious IAM . We hear repeatedly stories of hard-nosed leaders saying, “I told them I wanted it yesterday and they made it happen.” While these stories appear regularly in the press, the stories we don’t hear (unless the magnitude is large) are the numerous small failures where “I wanted it yesterday” is a loser. I assure you these out number the success stories but there is no one out their bragging about that, “Hey everyone, boy did we lose money this week” or “I would like to congratulate the team for missing every deadline I imposed on them.”

It is no different then the gambler bragging about his winnings and strangely silent on his losses. As Nassim Taleb has said, “We don’t learn that we don’t learn.”