Grappling with contingency

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Contingency is the idea that history could easily have turned out completely different, if only certain minor events had happened differently. If there was a zig somewhere instead of a zag, maybe the election would have gone the other way, or the outcome of the revolution would have be different.

In terms of the work we do, contingency means that the success of projects, or the length of an incident, may vary dramatically based on happenstance. Maybe someone happened to be out sick one day and missed a critical meeting, and so didn’t have a certain important bit of information or wasn’t able to give feedback on a design. Maybe someone on the team happened to have prior experience with just the sort of problem that they are all grappling with.

When we look back on successes and failures, they feel inevitable somehow, like there were an inexorable set of forces pushing in the direction that led to the success or failure. You can see that in incident retrospectives in particular, as people search for the cause, the essential reason this happened.

We’re uncomfortable with contingency, preferring essentialism. That’s why so often commit the fundamental attribution error: I snapped at you because I missed lunch, which put me in a grouchy mood; you snapped at me because you’re a hot-tempered jerk.

So, while we do have influence over outcomes, much depends on, well, chance. The difference between success and failure might hinge on the occurrence of a random hallway conversation where we pick up an extra bit of context, or whether our kid has a fever on a particular day and we need to take them to see the doctor.

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