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A Crisis is the End of an Illusion

Every morning I post a new quotation on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.  The quotation on February 9th, 2012 was from Jerry Weinberg, one of my mentors in the IT industry.  The quotation was:

“It may look like a crisis, but it’s only the end of an illusion.”

Many years ago, I copied this quotation to my list of favorites when I read one of Jerry’s books, “The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully.”  And when I recently reread the quote taken out of the context of the book, it struck me at first as a kind of wisecrack — the kind of thing you’d say as a quick rejoinder to someone’s Facebook post about a problem they’re having.

But then I read it again and, even without going back to the book for context, I saw how profound it is.

One dictionary reference defines crisis as:

1. a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.

2. a condition of instability or danger, as in social, economic, political, or international affairs, leading to a decisive change.

3. a dramatic emotional or circumstantial upheaval in a person’s life.

But these are point-in-time definitions — they define a crisis based on what’s happening now.  Instead, we need to consider the entire timeline over which a crisis develops.  For example, the BP gulf oil spill didn’t just start when the wellhead blew — the problem started many years earlier when incorrect assumptions were made and then subsequent warning signs were ignored.

The same thing happened with the Challenger shuttle disaster.  The choice to use O-rings in the design of the shuttle was based on some critical assumptions, and the crisis only occurred when there was a decision to launch the shuttle even after some cold weather stretched the limits on those assumptions.  The assumptions had been all but forgotten, and they had been replaced by an illusion that the shuttle was safe under those conditions.

More recently in the United States we’ve seen the debt crisis in the news.  And, like the others, this crisis really isn’t something sudden that’s appeared out of nowhere.  Instead, it’s the natural outcome of a recession that cut government income, together with the effects of a tax cut, an increase in medical and retirement benefits, an aging population, and a change in accounting policy that revealed the true nature of the debt.  The crisis came when we suddenly realized how bad things are (the end of the illusion), but the sources of the problem go back many, many years.

I’ve written before about the root of humor being a sudden shift in perspective, and it’s ironic to me that the root of a crisis is the same.  And yet that’s human nature: we continue to see things a certain way, day after day, week after week, year after year.  And then suddenly we see things differently — we see them for what they’ve been all along. A crisis is generally considered to be a bad thing, but we also need to remember that a crisis is just an opportunity to see things clearly.  It’s not the crisis that’s the problem — the problem is the way that we deceive ourselves.  We ease gradually into our world of illusion, taking things for granted, basing our lives on certain unspoken assumptions.  And then, “BANG!”  The illusions are shattered all at once, and we call the result a crisis.

So when you’re faced with a crisis, don’t blame the people who happen to be around when the crisis is made visible.  Instead, look at the source of the illusion, look at the incorrect assumptions that were made, and get an understanding of how we managed to deceive ourselves for so long.  You don’t prevent a crisis by developing a specially trained team to deal with the crisis when it occurs.  You prevent a crisis by keeping things out in the open, by voicing assumptions and keeping them visible, and by actively preventing the illusion.

If there’s no illusion, then there can’t be a crisis.

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