Anna Karenina Principle – How things fail

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way
–  Leo Tolstoy in “Anna Karenina”

In Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond artfully extended this to illustrate failure. He studied (and illustrated in his later book – Collapse) rise and fall of civilizations and societies right from Ice Age. Success, to him, is the “Perfect 10” scenario where multiple factors must play out in sync together. Failure, on other hand, is unique and could arise out of any of the contributing factors.

In our world, this means all successes are alike (a real problem to solve; good design; budget; right people and great teamwork). However, failures are far more complex – could be tactical misjudgment of leadership (Ford Pinto); undue aggressiveness (SCO suing everybody and his cousin); too slow (anyone remembers Altavista) and so on.

I have been through my share of failures. Well, a lot of them. In hindsight, the core reason was different in each, however, there was always a pattern. Patterns were like weird animal behavior before big earthquake. Somehow, perhaps, we intuitively feel things are not going right and our behavior radiates those feelings.

How does the pattern emanates “things are not going right” feeling within smartest of the teams?

  • AM Quality Communication – First thing to break down is usually communication. Even if it is made, it is not cohesive; signals not well received by rank and file and it could be a big surprise to many. One of my mentors once told me the first rule of professionalism is to avoid surprises, including good and big ones, within team. Big surprises, apparently, erode certain bit of trust.
  • Reduced half-life of reaction to genuine customer woes – Failing teams often start ignore issues raised by customers. All successful teams I have seen always give first preference to each and any customer raised issue. Could your team have ability to fix it — forget the constraints for a second — in a week? If so, how long it took to reach to customers? Does your team react passively (or, worse, don’t) once a customer thrashes the product in a nasty email?
  • Lack of Yawn in meetings – Seriously, a bit of yawn not only helps keeping people awake, but it being a contagious social behavior helps people synchronize their behavior with others. Olympic athletes yawn before performing to get that little dopamine boost. Do people always seem on full alert on all your meetings? It’s probably a good idea to review why!
  • Unambiguous unanimity on what’s executed in next quarter (not on “what”, but on “how” ) -Technically, this is impossible in a team of smart people. If this happens, people probably just gave up hope. In the best teams I worked, “how” was always like a closely contested election that Gallup would fail to predict the outcome of. On other hand, if everyone agrees, you probably hired people just like you and made their thinking redundant to start with.
  • You cannot have lunch with a team member without hearing some Blame-fixing – “Oh, OPS / IT / PD / PM / < your own TLA> messed up”. “We need to go through X / it takes 6 weeks / QA cannot finish / My team is doing way too much for past year and half / We don’t do it that way / Don’t comment on what you did not build! / Oh, so a $1B product is faulty, and you will fix it?”This is absolutely the sign that things need to be revisited. Today!On the other hand,  I recently worked with a team that does not get much press. Yet, I am still super-excited by their response and energy. in 2 weeks they made, and pushed to production, changes that gave them a direct 3X improvement in capacity.
  • They  communicated well across the team on what to do; why this is done (some of the crispest and most honest communications. “We again went down this morning!” )
  • They measured gaps in capacity in “number of customer-hrs lost” (to hear 12,000 customer hrs lost in downtime is far more impacting than 99.5% uptime!)
  • The meetings were noisy. Only big one I had was a potluck — with about 30 dishes. And wine. Loved it!
  • People vigorously attacked on how to solve the problem. Ultimately, two ideas from different people came together and became the solution.
  • Believe me or not, not much blame was passed around. I rarely heard “Damn, they should already have done it”.Well, as proscribed in Anna Karenina, any one of these factors, or another, gone wrong and this team would have continued to have uptime issues. Success is difficult to achieve, failure is not.

About Nilendu Misra
I love to learn, create and coach. Things that I do well are - Communicating ideas - verbally or through words and diagrams; Problem Solving - Logical or Abstract; Very Large Scale Systems; think about 'Frighteningly Simple' approach first. Things that I intend to do better are - Establishing Stringent Process; Exchanging Tough Feedback; Keeping up with my reading or To-Do list to be able to completely relax.

One Response to Anna Karenina Principle – How things fail

  1. Merrin says:

    Nice post! You really got me thinking 🙂
    I especially like the way you connected Anna Karenina with building software.

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