Sunday, August 1, 2010

Totally Irrelevant

In the meeting, one of the engineers brought up his concerns about a potential problem with our project. He described a scenario under which the planned product would fail to work in the manner specified and suggested that we immediately stop our development efforts until we could sort out the problem. He then proposed a series of complex technical workarounds that would address the problem and preclude the product failure. The discussion was immediately flooded with arguments for and against each of the proposed solutions.

I sat listening (no doubt with my jaw hanging freely, my mouth agape). I was speechless... for the moment. I waited for a lull in the argument and then turned to the engineer who had raised the concern asking, "What is the likelihood of the scenario that you described occurring?"

He looked at me saying, "What do you mean?"

"I mean, you describe a complex set of coincidental circumstances that to me seem highly improbable."

Then, quickly doing the math I asserted, "It would seem to me that the probability of this happening is on the order of one in eighteen billion or so."

Then I walked through the factors that contributed to my virtual back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Before I could tighten my grip, the reigns of the discussion were torn from my fingers as arguments ensued as to wether the odds were one in eighteen-billion, one in nine-billion, or one in thirty-six-billion. Sigh...

During another lull I asserted, "For the sake of this discussion, let's say that the odds are just one in nine-billion."

Somewhat indignantly the concerned engineer asserted, "Yes, but it could happen!"

So I responded, "OK, if it did happen, what would the impact be?"

"What do mean?"

"Would it be a catastrophe? Would it be a minor annoyance? Would it be something easily fixed? Would it go unnoticed altogether?"

He said, "It might go unnoticed, but it could require someone to reset their system... under certain circumstances."

Rather than explaining that the under-certain-circumstances qualifier further decreased the likelihood of occurrence, I forged ahead saying, "OK, so we have the one-in-nine-billion occurrence that requires the customer to reset the product. Is there any way to avoid this other than to redesign the product?"

One of the other engineers piped up saying, "Well, we could put something in the instruction manual that tells people not to do this, this, this and this while doing that, that and the other thing!"

I said, "So basically we tell people something on the order of, 'please don't use your space heater to maintain the temperature of the water in your pool.'"

Everyone nodded.

Then it occurred to me that this type of discussion had been taking place a bit too frequently. So I launched into an explanation of the concept of relevance.

The Relevance of Relevance
Although it might seem fundamental and quite simple, there are lots and lots of smart people who really don't seem to get relevance, or at least they don't apply relevance to everyday decisions and situations.

Each day we're faced with many decisions regarding where and how we spend our time and the time of others over whom we have influence. Consciously or not, those decisions are guided by what each of us considers to be important. What's important at any moment is reflected in our actions and is determined by the net sum of all the little importances that swirl about in our minds. For some of us riding the carousel of life, important is whatever has just come into view as landscape spins around us. For others, it's the brass ring that we know awaits us just a few degrees of rotation away.

Regardless of what you've determined to be of primary importance (assuming that you've determined something), relevance is a way of determining which tasks, opportunities and situations best contribute to your achieving it. Whether your primary (most important) goal is the creation of a thriving business or it's raising happy children, the ability to discern relevance is the single greatest contributor to success or failure.

But It Could Happen!
The world of potential is infinitely larger than the world of is. As such, whether or not something can happen doesn't actually mean anything, even if the something that could happen would be catastrophic. When considering all the potential somethings, one must consider two factors: likelihood (what are the odds of it happening) and significance (if it happens, so what?). For something to be relevant, it must be both likely and significant.

If something happens all the time, but it makes absolutely no difference to your achieving what's important to you, then it's irrelevant (even if it makes a big difference to others). If something could happen that would make a huge difference to you but is highly unlikely (e.g., winning the lottery or having a plane crash into your house), then it's irrelevant (no matter how great or terrible it would be.)

All things being equal, the reason one person succeeds and another fails is due to her ability to eradicate irrelevant thought and activity from her life. In fact, a person substantially less skilled and experienced with a lazer focus on what is relevant can handily succeed in areas where more seasoned but unfocused people fail.

Beyond Relevance
Once you've determined that something is relevant, the next step is to determine what to do about it. I've mentioned before the phenomenon: When all you've got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. To avoid this phenomenon, you need to determine what to do through application of the concept of cost/benefit. How much does each solution cost (time, resources and money) compared to the benefit of it (effectiveness, speed and importance).

Cost and benefit are themselves variable depending on what's important to you.

Let's say that your washing machine no longer does its spin cycle effectively and that having it do so is relevant. If you're handy, then your hammer is to take apart the washer, isolate the problem and repair it. If you're not handy, then your hammer is to call someone who is handy or a repair person to fix it. If you're wealthy, then your hammer may be to simply order a new washer and have it installed for you. However, depending on your primary goal, your personal hammer may not be the best tool to use.

If your most important project depends on your time and effort, then no matter how handy you are, fixing the washer yourself is going to cost you a lot: you can't afford the time. If your most important project depends on cash flow and you have limited funds, then no matter how unhandy you are, it may be time to learn to fix things yourself: you can't afford the money. If you have neither time nor money, then the best solution may involve the local wifi equipped laundry-mat: you can't afford either.

Since we've already determined that fixing the washer is relevant (I need the washer to work frequently and there is significant impact when it doesn't work), the other two factors that contribute to benefit are time (how quickly will the solution solve the problem) and quality (how effectively will the solution solve the problem).

Even time and quality are subject to rules of relevance. If I have an adequate supply of clean clothes, then time isn't that important; I can wait for delivery or for the repair person. If I'm out of clothes, but all I wear is jeans and t-shirts, then quality may not be that important: I can dump everything into a single washer at the laundry mat and be done quickly.

Quite frequently, the best solution (best meaning satisfying criteria of relevance, cost and benefit) may also be the most distasteful. You may bristle at the thought of paying for someone to fix something that you could fix yourself. You may don a big floppy hat and sunglasses while visiting the laundry mat. You may find washer's internal organs icky. Because of this, many of us, even after determining the best solution, will revert to the hammer we've always used.

When you do this, what you've really done is to replace what you said was most important with something that you consider to be even more important. Acknowledging this is, well... important and relevant. Importance, relevance, cost and benefit are all inter-related and evolve over time.

Whatever the case, if you find yourself frequently failing to achieve or under-achieving the things in life you consider to be most important, it's highly likely that you've filled your life with activities that are irrelevant. It may be time to re-evaluate what's really important to you... whether or not your activities and areas of focus are relevant to it... whether or not your solutions provide the best combination of cost and benefit.


Happy Sunday,

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