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  • Jose Arrieta

Don't Expect People to be Exceptional

My old boss used to say: "Do not plan on being lucky". The idea is that when making long-range plans, the assumption that you will be lucky will set you up for failure if this luck does not materialize. Life happens. You cannot change this, but you can plan accordingly. Organizations can always make countermeasures and thus planning on exceptionality can actually be quite profitable, but not always.


As Abraham Lincoln once said, and Bob Marley's fantastic Get Up Stand Up immortalized: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time" The same is true for exceptionally. Even the best athletes lose during their Imperial Phase, and your best employee will disappoint if you wait long enough. That is just how life is.


Exceptional behavior is part skill and part luck. However, our minds and incentive mechanisms tend to conflate the two and we pay admiration to both the lucky and the skilled. Dangerously, as time goes by, we tend to normalize exceptional behavior and our life becomes more and more dependent on these exceptions. Sadly, by definition, exceptions are not the norm, we should not expect them! The more we expect them to happen the more we near tipping points and systemic collapse.


A way forward is to plan for people to be good but not exceptional. Similar to Vickrey auctions, one can expect the top performer to outperform the others. But if we plan for them to perform at the level of the 2nd best, we will reap the benefits if the top performer still outperforms all but give our plans some resilience. Now only if the top two people stumble will the organization be hurt. This lowering of aspiration can continue until the planned performance is met continuously without burning everyone out.


We are all human, flesh, and bone, cosmic dust helping the universe understand itself. The need for some in the organizations to be anything more than humans will lead to a toxic environment and our organizations toward systemic collapse. Alas, it might be hard to discern when one was lucky or skilled but we can all try to expect less exceptional behavior from each other and help build a more humane world.

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