Mental Contrasting

Our dependence on the internet has been revealed through COVID. Our ability to work remotely has been directly tied to the quality of our internet connection. This is also the case for students trying to access online education. If, during COVID, our internet was limited or our connection disrupted, our worlds came to a crashing halt. How one US internet provider stepped up its game in recent months largely based on its prior planning is the subject of this Atlantic article.

The article is well worth the read and offers a fascinating account of an industry that has been crucial to helping us maintain some semblance of normalcy in recent months. The article notes that since mid-March, in the US (and likely the case in other countries) internet traffic increased 20-25% and has held steady at these substantially higher rates. This demand increase would usually be absorbed over a couple of years and, instead, was done in four to six weeks. No other industry is likely able to handle this kind of demand increase so quickly. Trucking, trains, flights, none of these industries could quickly absorb demand increases of this magnitude. Nor could our healthcare systems. After all, that’s what the lockdowns were intended to protect, our hospitals from demand overload. Internet service providers have stepped up and helped expand their capacities to meet demand. They are a good news industry in a world of economic hurt. Things haven’t been perfect. I’m sure we’ve all experienced some kind of outage in recent months whether at our home office or with respect to one of the services we provide or access.

Fishman writes, “The simplest explanation for why the pandemic hasn’t broken the internet is that the internet was designed to be unbreakable, at the very beginning. (The early precursor to the internet, ARPANET, was designed to survive a nuclear attack by rerouting network signals.) That principle still infuses the way it is built, and also the way it is managed and maintained. And it’s reflected in the sheer number of resources—staff and infrastructure—that network companies such as AT&T and cloud companies such as Amazon devote to minimizing interruptions and slowdowns, even in a normal environment.”

The internet business is based on “uptime” or reliability. We want it when we want it. We expect it to be there just like we expect water to come out of the end of the faucet when we turn the tap. Internet companies recognize that reliability is their raison d’etre. As such, they build extra capacity into their systems. They do this in order to both stay ahead of growth as well as to manage crises. This can be contrasted as the direct opposite of what most other industries do. Most other industries operate in the realm of “just in time” deliveries. They are selling from empty boats. They are selling first, then building. We see this in supply chain disruptions all over the place. Lean organizations have been in vogue. Trying to do more with less is what we’ve been told to do. In this article, we see explanations for why we’ve been unable to access any number of usually widely available products during the pandemic.

Excess capacity may make a comeback. The importance of this is being revealed to us through both successful and unsuccessful industries. It may be worth trying to learn from the approach of internet companies. We may not have the luxury of building in layers of staff capable of absorbing demand boosts of 25%, but whether we like it or not, we are faced with the harsh truth that where we are today is a result of the choices we’ve made in the past. This is true on a personal level as well as in business. Perhaps, we recognize that we’re tired and groggy trying to work today. If so, could it be because we stayed up too late last night scrolling Facebook on our phone? If we’re struggling with something today, it’s because of something we’ve done or neglected to do in the recent past. If we’re struggling with capacity in our business today, it could be related to strategic decisions we’ve made in the past to run with less staff and resources? Actions have consequences. Once we accept this, we can use this knowledge as the basis of our planning process.

Our internet providers recognize that growth is coming and that crises will emerge. Though they can’t anticipate the exact amount and timing of growth nor the timing and type of crisis, they can adapt their systems and structure to accommodate the recognition of these realities. They have done so while other industries have not. Don’t worry about racing to adopt the latest technology like Slack, strive instead to create slack in your workflows. A great strategy for developing capabilities to manage change and crisis is to build space in your organization to handle incoming contingencies. Excess capacity in a business system provides some flexibility to manage the unknown. This is a great starting point. We’re trying to give ourselves a chance by creating a pause to prepare for unforeseen circumstances.

Maybe we’re connecting with the idea that the only thing we can predict is that humans are very good at adapting. Even in ugly times, some will prosper. The ability to adapt isn’t universal. Some are better than others. What may be at core of why some are better than others? Is it in their ability to plan? Beyond building in a buffer in order to provide time and space for decision making, what more can we do to give thought to planning for unknown futures? If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that bad things can and will happen. Recognizing the reality that the future won’t just be sunshine and rainbows is the starting point for preparing for problems. John Eliot in his book, Overachievement, writes “No one understands the role of failure in success better than engineers and research scientists. ‘The design of any device, machine, or system is fraught with failure,’ explains Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University. ‘Indeed, the way engineers achieve success in their designs is by imagining how they might fail.’ Petroski points out that most design is “defensive engineering,” adding that ‘the perfect system is the stuff of science fiction, not of engineering.’”

We can use contingency or scenario planning as “thought experiments”. These are mental tools we use to imagine a future and then determine how we would need to act in order to best handle the imagined future. However, when we do this we tend to fall into the traps of optimism. We anticipate only successful outcomes and develop our action plans on favorable forecasts. We overestimate success and underestimate the resources required (time and money). This is the old “things will take twice as long as you expect and cost twice as much” line that is thrown at budding entrepreneurs. Instead we can put on our gloom glasses and do the opposite. That is, actively anticipating and planning for problems. Fishman writes, “At&t rehearses for disaster. Last May, the company ran an internal war game on how a pandemic would affect its ability to keep phone and internet service running. The company does these exercises routinely to try to get ready—to build teams of people and their reflexes, and also to understand what they will need on the ground.” AT&T was thinking about how a pandemic may impact their business almost a year before it occurred.

Problem planning is something we tend to avoid. We want to focus our strategic efforts on predicting rosy futures and basking in thoughts of glory once achieved. Psychologist, Gabriele Oettingen, wrote Rethinking Positive Thinking. She offers research based support for the idea that positive thinking is flawed. If we focus on the outcomes we want and the feelings we’ll have once accomplished, we’re doing little more than daydreaming. It feels good, but spurs little constructive action. It actually lessens the likelihood for success. Oettingen instead offers that we should be spending our time anticipating problems. Mental Contrasting is a technique presented which has been used successfully in a number of contexts. The idea is to brainstorm obstacles or hiccups that may impede your progress towards a goal. We envision our desired outcome, then we think of and list potential problems. We then develop a plan for how we will address each problem. For example, my goal is to get to work in the morning. If there’s construction on route A, I will take route B. If I have a car problem, I can take my other car, transit, hail a cab, or call Susie for a ride. By anticipating hurdles, we can plan to overcome them. As importantly, by anticipating them we can work to avoid them in the first place. In order to avoid having a car problem, have it checked out by a mechanic and ensure that the oil is changed, for example. We’re not just focused on the fun feelings of anticipating success. We embrace negativity and explore what may not work in order to plan how to manage these. This is similar to one of the benefits of planning outlined in The 6 Ps of Planning that astronauts do. They spend inordinate amounts of time preparing for worst case scenarios. If x fails, what will we do? They invest energy here in order to have confidence in their ability to handle unknown circumstances.

Thinking of what problems we may encounter en-route to our objectives isn’t a new approach. Stoic philosophers were known to use a similar approach several thousand years ago. They called their technique Pre Meditatio Malorum in which they thought in advance about what could go wrong. As they worked through potential problems, they strategized and mentally rehearsed how each issue would be overcome. Seneca suggests we consider problems as part of our planning, “We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events… Rehearse these in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”

This isn’t to suggest that AT&T or other internet service providers are benefitting with ease during the pandemic. AT&T has closed well over half of its retail outlets. They have many thousands of staff sidelined because of their vulnerabilities to the virus. They are also facing revenue challenges from customer concessions made. They are struggling with adapting and managing their way through this mess as well. Nonetheless, their business structure and scenario planning helps focus their efforts on what they can control. Those that struggle with strategy are those that in the future will still be talking about the future, while successful people are living in the now. Heroes of hindsight avoid the folly of forecasting. They become a true hero not because they have advanced hindsight, but because they use tools like mental contrasting to develop a formal, actionable plan to manage problems. They’re not wasting time hoping for the best, they’re increasing their chances of steady, successful performance by planning for the worst. They are echoing that observed by Heidi Grant Halvorson in Nine Things Successful People Do Differently where she writes, “People who are confident that they will succeed and equally confident that success won’t come easily, put in more effort, plan how to deal with problems before they arise, and persist longer in the face of difficulty.”