Provoking thought

Welcome to The Show

Welcome to The Show
DALL-E's rendering of a show in progress

I sometimes lie awake at night mentally preparing for a critical meeting.

I’m a slow thinker, so when surprising things happen, there’s a risk that I effectively blank out. My coping mechanism is scenario planning.

When I say A, how will others respond? If they respond with B, how would I reply in return?

On and on I go. I build up enormous conversation trees, taking into account all the scenarios I can think of and potential paths to take.

“With all due respect, but that’s pretty insane,” you’ll say. I would have to agree. Welcome to my world.

Yet. However meticulous my preparation. However many hours I spend in my head, working through possible scenarios. However many sleepless nights. From time to time it still happens.

The meeting starts. All seems fine. Then, a few minutes in...

Shit show.

Then, as I look towards the sky, with various consistencies of gunk splashing over me, I ask myself: Why do I always forget my umbrella?

After closing the faucets. After handing out towels. After helping clean up some of the initial mess, I know that this is only where the real job starts.

Why does this happen? Why can we not avoid these things? They may be rare, but occasionally they happen. Why?

The answer: Chaos theory. Lorenz’s butterfly and all of that.

Although I believe the world to be deterministic (repeating history will always keep producing the same result), it is not realistically determinable. Even if we understand most rules, parameters and likely sequences in which things tend to pan out, a minor divergence may result in a completely unpredicted outcome.

Somebody is delayed at the doctor’s office and joins a meeting late missing important context. Somebody shares their entire screen, and a questionable notification appears.

And then: Welcome to The Show we call Shit.

But that’s ok.

In fact, it’s an opportunity.

“Here we go again, inspirational speaker mode ignited, I suppose?”

Indeed. Strap in. We’re about to head for peak hyperbole.

It’s these episodes of The Show that tend to become critical moments in history. Pick any famous historical incident, and I bet you will find a shit show at its root.

And good news! You’re right here for this one.

So there you stand, at the center, looking up toward the sky.

What is it going to be?

Will you manage to turn this into one of those historical moments that people will write songs about for generations to come?

Or, will it end up as a fun anecdote to tell at tomorrow’s stand-up, causing record high attendance on the next meeting, with people stocking up on popcorn and umbrellas?

It’s up to you, the runner of the show now turned to shit, to figure out how you want to play it.

No pressure.

I will by no means pretend that I’ve mastered this art.

I’d like to believe that my insane scenario planning strategy has at least avoided some episodes of The Show. While I will argue that an occasional episode of The Show can be good, you don’t want it to become a serial thing. Although popcorn and umbrella sales people would probably disagree. And Netflix keeps calling to get streaming rights.

Nevertheless, there’s a few learnings on shit show management that I’ve accrued over the years. Eventually these will evolve into a somewhat niche course on Shit Show Management I’ll be teaching at Harvard, but let me give a sneak preview already today.

First, there is immense value in simply acknowledging a shit show to be a shit show. Maybe not using these technical management terms — not everybody appreciates their subtleties. Attempting to hide what happened is actively harmful, whereas simply calling it out publicly is a good opportunity to create trust. “Ok, so at least the company is not trying to paper over what happened. That’s something.” Indeed.

Second, episodes of The Show tend to come with more fireworks in hot button areas. They can be effective catalysts for uncovering deeper issues. And it’s worth uncovering those. Therefore, let’s dig in. It’s root cause analysis time! Luckily, they make for great conversation starters.

“Hey, were you there at the thing yesterday?”

“Oh my, sadly I missed it — delayed doctor’s appointment. But I heard about it! Sounds pretty crazy!”

“Yes, it was fun. How do you think that happened, why did people respond this way?”

And quickly we’re on a path to uncover an actual problem.

And third, because these shows tend to be mere symptoms, it’s not really worth spending too much energy on treating them. Don’t immediately cancel the whole event; don’t cook up elaborate new policies, guidelines, prep meetings, disclaimer sections and legal documents. Except legal documents signed in blood, those are always a good addition.

Seriously. Chill.

Whatever you’ll come up with will not avoid the next show. You’ll be surprised in a whole new way. Just wait.

You’ll think you’re well prepared. You ran through all the possible scenarios. All seems to go well.

And then, a few minutes in...