A Few Inches To The Left

Driving home on the final day of high school, I fell asleep at the wheel. I awoke only a handful of instants before slamming head on into a telephone pole. Luckily, in those spare milliseconds, I was instinctively wrenched the wheel to the left even though collision was imminent.  The officer at the scene looked at the wreckage that remained of my pickup, and smiled as he began to talk to me.”You don’t know how lucky you are” he said “you missed the engine block by about an inch.” Apparently, at the speed I was going, had I hit the engine block I would have shoved it clean through myself.

I stood dazed and shaken. Part of it was the flood of adrenaline and shock in my system. The rest of it was due to the fact that I stood there, unscathed minus a small lump on my right shin, when the telephone striking only a a few inches to the left would have been the end of me.

I traveled back to this time as I read Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. In it, Catmull recalls a time from his youth when only two inches stood separated his family from being driven off a cliff. Catmull talks about all these hidden instances that are linchpins to future outcomes. Had he not survived that harrowing experience, there would be no Pixar. And if there was no Pixar, what would make grown men cry at the movies?

Merely a telephone pole? Or is it one of the Universe's Plinko pegs that bounced me into a current life path?
Merely a telephone pole? Or is it one of the Universe’s Plinko pegs that bounced me into a current life path?

There are so many hidden instances that could have gone one way or another and yet because of all the Universe’s dice rolls, we stand here today with our current lot. It becomes a tad unnerving to think about all the little threads that hold together the fabric of our present. One small deviation or one tiny idea that actually went according to plan for once, and we’d all be in different places. Such impact from hidden happenings.

While I may have infinite number of hidden instances that have aligned to orchestrate this moment, everyone on my team have their own infinite number of hidden instances aligning in their own manner. We’re all like these living Plinko games and life careens off of pegs chaotically and unpredictably, to land where we are right now. Even as we try to develop testable hypotheses and validatable prototypes, we are unable to control many variables, including ones inside ourselves.

Imagine inside each of us is an endless array of switches, dials, and levers that we have no control over. The Universe is at the helm inside that control room; setting all instruments up for what is to be. We often believe we have ultimate control over what happens. We’re so certain in something that it can’t possibly fail. This is where we are fooling ourselves. There are infinitely many hidden instances, variables in the Universe’s control, that we can’t conceive them all much less control them.

As innovators, we need to be able to widen our vision to try to see as many hidden instances as we can even though we’ll never be able to see wide enough. The only sure solution is to accept that all things can fail. But then, isn’t this why we test minimally viable prototypes? Isn’t this why we work in a lean manner? Isn’t this why we build, test, learn, and iterate quickly. The answer to all three is yes.

So as you are preparing for you next batch of tests, assure yourself that failure is always an option. Conduct pre-mortems because you can’t prepare for, or even see, all the hidden instances that could affect the outcome. Be prepared to pivot and iterate with the learning you will gain from a glorious failure.

And take a moment to appreciate the people in your life. They’ve had a lifetime of hidden instances that led them to being here with you.

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