[PMC Daily Consulting Insight] Mick Fleetwood’s drum

Philip Morgan

This is a drum.

The clerk at the store said in 1983 Mick Fleetwood bought it, and then never returned to pick it up. It's been sitting there the whole time.

I have no reason to disbelieve this.

I mean, if it's 1983 and you're Mick Fleetwood, why woudn't you buy a massive cottonwood and cowhide drum in Taos and forget to pick it up, or just never bother to pick it up. After all, it's 1983 and you're Mick freaking Fleetwood! You're busy being famous. And Taos is quite a ways from LA.

I spent a large part of the weekend reading and refreshing and reading the #KincadeFire Twitter hastag.

It's painful to see a place I lived, and people I know, be so threatened by a wildfire. Even if you live one county or more away from the actual fire, you still feel a sense of danger. I felt the danger from over 1,000 miles away!

Part of that feeling, for me at least, comes from knowing 6 people whose houses burned down in the 2017 Tubbs fire. It makes events like this one personal.

The 2018 Camp fire was, in some ways, worse.

If you deal with complexity in any way, reading the excellent Wikipedia article on the Camp fire is worth the time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Fire_(2018) BTW, that was a trick setup there. It's 2019. We all deal with complexity. :)

And quite possibly, we help our clients deal with complexity.

The Camp fire, and other large scale wildfires, are incredible case studies in complexity and risk and decision making. This is just a partial list of the components of the complex system of a wildfire:

  • People
    • Government
    • Private companies
    • Volunteers
    • Citizens
  • Policy
    • Land use policy
    • Contracts
    • Overall policy direction and high-level usage of resources, development regulation, etc.
  • Infrastructure
    • Electrical transmission and distribution
    • Transportation infrastructure: roads, airports, etc.
    • Water pumping and delivery infrastructure
    • Information distribution
      • Internet, SMS, terrestrial radio
      • Private/public platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc.
      • Information assets from governments (ex: Cal Fire's website), etc.
  • Resources
    • Money
    • General equipment (bulldozers, etc.)
    • Specialized fire fighting equipment
    • Prison labor
    • Professional fire fighters
    • Information
      • Mostly accurate information
      • Mostly inaccurate information
      • Authority of various information sources, like the phenomenal Sarah Stierich (https://www.sarahstierch.com and https://twitter.com/sarah_stierch), a freelance specialist wildfire reporter
      • Specialized data like weather forecasts, satellite imagery, etc.
  • Decision making
    • Information availability
    • Biases (the following decision making biases are likely to come into play before and during a wildfire: Ambiguity effect, Anchoring, Attentional bias, Attribution substitution, Availability heuristic, Availability cascade, Backfire effect, Bandwagon effect, Belief bias, Confirmation bias, Conservatism bias, Dunning-Kruger effect, Illusion of control, Illusion of validity, Loss aversion, Normalcy bias, Observer-expectancy effect, Optimism bias, Ostrich effect, Overconfidence effect, Planning fallacy, Present bias, Pro-innovation bias, Risk compensation, Salience bias, Selection bias, Subadditivity effect, Parkinson's law of triviality, Zero-risk bias)
    • Unknown or poorly defined probabilities
    • Jurisdictional relationships, lines of communication, trust, etc.

It's tempting to over-simplify this complexity. Some meme drumbeats that have been going on for a while will get amplified during the 2019 wildfire season:

  • Fucking PG&E. They're a greedy, incompetent, private company. This wouldn't happen if they were a public utility. Or if they'd buried their lines. Or, or, or...
  • Fucking climate change. This wouldn't happen if federal level politicians weren't so greedy or shortsighted or so [insert simple, easy to hate attribute here].
  • Fucking land use policies. Wildfires would happen but wouldn't be so bad if land use policies made it harder/more expensive/impossible for people to live in wooded rural areas.

There are probably others, but those are the memes I've seen circulating, and saw amplified over the weekend in the context of the Kincade fire.

None of these are totally untrue, except that by focusing on one simple easy aspect of a complex system, they are untrue.

Think PG&E is the problem? How would you deliver reliable, cost-competitive electrical power to 16 million people spread out over 70,000 square miles of terrain ranging from desert, heavily wooded rural areas, densely populated urban areas, mountainous areas, areas with lots of laws regulating construction, areas that don't give a fuck what you do, and areas that experience wildly varying weather. That's just the distribution side of things. You'd also be managing 174 hydroelectric dams, 1 nuke, 3 or so natural gas plants, some solar plants, and an assortment of other generation resources. And, to meet future demand, you'd be trying to build more of these important resources that are absolute magnets for NIMBYism and bad PR. And you'd be constantly negotiating rates and contracts with a bunch of other utilities to source 33% of your power needs against demand that is partially predictable and partially unpredictable. And no matter how well you managed your sourcing, generation, and distribution infrastructure, you'd be fighting a war on four additional fronts: regulatory, customer service, public relations, and legal. Each of these is just as complex as the sourcing, generation, and distribution part of things.

PG&E, fighting its 7-front war, is just one complex system within a larger complex system that we can see in action before and during a wildfire.

In consulting, I see two basic tags: change and optimization.

Let's set aside for a moment that optimization is a form of change. When I say "change consulting", I mean supporting clients who want to do something fundamentally new or different. Optimization consulting is helping them improve something they're already doing.

The wildfire system in California has optimized since 2017.

At least from my comfortable vantage point in Taos and through the lens of Twitter and some text messages with friends in Sonoma County, I see improvement. Evacuations, for one example, are more proactive, which frees fire fighting resources up to focus on fighting the fire and saving infrastructure rather than saving lives and trying to save infrastructure.

The drumbeat memes you'll see amplified during and after this wildfire season aren't asking for optimization consulting. The impulse underneath these memes is: we need change (and we need it yesterday).

Change is a lot harder and more expensive than optimization, at least in the short run. Over the long run, avoiding change can lead to significant expense or death. But in the short run, optimization is cheaper.

My clients who practice change consulting feel this in every aspect of their business, which I also view as a complex system.

Business development is harder and different.

Marketing is more loosely coupled with business success, and requires investing in more slow-acting ways.

Service offerings are generally more weird and harder to define.

Change is more expensive than optimization.

If you can find clients who understand this, you can make a lot of money helping them with this change/transformation.

I suspect Mick Fleetwood was seeking change on an optimization budget when he bought that giant drum in 1983 at this shop:

It's one thing to be the namesake founding drummer of a famous band and add one more drum to your collection. Especially if that drum is small and portable. That's an easy optimization.

It's a whole other thing if that drum is a 6-foot wide hollowed out tree trunk that's been covered with like two whole cow hides. That's not an optimization. That's a serious project to deal with. That's disruption. That's change.

The "change on an optimization budget problem" might be why Mick Fleetwood's drum is still sitting in this shop 26 years later!