September 27, 2011
An old management adage called the “law” of wing walking is, “Don’t let go of anything before you have hold of something else.” Some wing walkers just shut their eyes and kept a tight grip. A few jumped from one plane to another.
Since very few of us wing walk, this old adage also excuses never taking a risk. That’s a warped interpretation of the precautionary principle, which in brief, obligates anyone taking action to consider all foreseeable risks to assure no harm to others. Wing walkers risking only their own lives are cheered. A pilot injuring others by crashing into a crowd at an air race, which happened recently, is no longer cheered. The precautionary principle applies to injuring others, their property, or the environment.
One can never foresee everything, but the precautionary principle puts the burden of proof on those taking action – or inaction, because never surveying for adverse outcomes is also risky. Deciding how much foresight is enough depends on both knowledge and motivation. In a complex world, regulating profit-maximizing businesses puts much of the burden on regulators to prove that harm is being done after the fact. Complex regulations to meet minimum standards are a poor substitute for imagination using the precautionary principle. Compression Thinking has to move beyond compliance.
Slowly dawning is Compression, a different kind of world – our new reality. To deal with it and not only survive but enjoy living, performance, not just profit, is paramount. Learning how to do this is called Compression Thinking. Assuming responsibility by the precautionary principle is only one aspect of it. If you are a geek, think of it as a “Moore’s Law” shrinking of the global physical economy.
Reducing resource use by reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling is well known, but we have to do more than eliminate waste from today’s work processes. We must transform what we do to become more effective. For instance, K-12 education “delivered” by an industrial model has no end of critics, including the teachers. Can we devise much more effective ways to educate kids that require fewer buildings and busses? Effective health care would prevent more people from becoming as sick, of course, but the system is biased toward quantity care. A recent survey of primary care physicians suggests that better quality attention, not a greater quantity of care, may be better.
At a recent meeting of Compression Institute advisors, we noted that the process of adopting Compression Thinking entails far more than just adopting techniques. Real change would be transformative, and like wing walking, risky but possible to do. We need to take to the air, however slowly we may lift off.