In Which We Talk About System Failures (Complete with Examples)

There’s something my partner likes to say whenever people get pedantic about how things ought to be working. He’s quite a history buff, so he’s drawing on a lot of modern history when he nods sardonically and says, “Ah, yes, the system never fails. We can only fail the system.” This is fairly funny when it’s directed at people shouting on the internet, but not so funny when it’s directed at me.

Isn’t it funny how that works?

You probably know how I am about systems. Systems help you automate, automation helps you put your attention where it will do the most good, and ideally, this helps you do a lot of things very efficiently and well.

And naturally, it’s inevitable that the system breaks down at times. Like any complex machinery, sometimes it hits something that it can’t handle.

I got knocked off the wagon all the way back in January. More than six months ago.

It was bound to happen, really. I’d had a streak of like 9 months were things went very well indeed, and I felt like I was hitting my stride. Time to gear up, right?

Yeah, well, the Universe had other plans.

First there was a major repair bill that wiped out our savings. Then there was a series of health crises and deaths in the family. Then, one of the businesses that was supposed to be a sideline doubled in March. And then doubled again in June. My long-term plans for Change Catalyst required a website overhaul in preparation for proper marketing initiatives, so I went to ground in February and hardly anyone has seen me since.

Like any smart business owner, I triaged the money-making activities; my clients, and my sideline businesses. And every time that things would slack off, I would try to return to my old template; weekly blog posts, really useful emails a couple times a month, all tied into the master plan set forth in my 6 Month Plan.

And every time I did, it ground to a halt like I’d popped the clutch.

And no wonder, of course. I was in too high a gear.

My previous template was built on nine months of momentum, at least 20 hours a week of available time to write, and a certain amount of stability in my schedule.

In my current situation, after handling the paid work, I have perhaps 5-10 hours a week to work on higher level stuff for my business, like blog posts, like marketing, like outreach, like automation.

I’m telling you this not as a tale of woe, but because this is an issue that many of you will encounter as well.

Shit will happen, and you will have to adapt to the situation that is, not try to make the situation fit the plan you made.

  • You might get divorced
  • You might have children, or a second child that’s way more of a handful than the first. Or your kid might start having problems in school and you spend a lot of time helping her or on the phone with the teacher. There’s a lot of potential for chaos in families.
  • You might get a nice mention in someone’s book and your client list will triple.
  • You might get sick or become caretaker for someone else
  • You might undertake a partnering opportunity that blows up into more than you anticipate.
  • Your house might get flattened in a tornado
  • You might just burn out (yes, I said it. We burn out.)

A client of mine consciously scaled back her business after her last marketing push in preparation for a big move. She still feels guilty about it, like she’s failing her business. But what she’s actually doing is honoring the circumstances. She’s dealing with what is, and not what she’d like to be happening. Mental bandwidth is a real thing, and you have to honor it.

That’s why I push the “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you can be wild and original in your work,” thing. Because there’s only so much chaos and uncertainty you can effectively cope.

I’m still figuring out how I can run the public-facing side of Change Catalyst on five hours a week. It won’t be easy, but it does have to be done, because you can’t run a business indefinitely without marketing. But some of that time will also have to be invested in figuring out how to hand off responsibilities in my so-called sidelines. To continue my transmission metaphor, it looks like I’m going to have to drop it in low and let it lug for a while. It’s not a long-term solution, but it’s the situation I’m facing right now.

How Did We Get Into This Mess?

When my partner says sarcastically,  “The system cannot fail; we can only fail the system,” he’s speaking to our tendency to take the plan we made, or the ideal we have in our head, as the right way to do things. Which means that any deviation from the right thing is wrong or bad. That we are failing.

But that’s not true. I mean, the plan doesn’t even exist, not in the real world. It’s just a hypothetical, and moreover, it posits a reality that is clearly not occurring. So the plan doesn’t exist, and the reality on which it’s based doesn’t exist SO HOW CAN IT BE TELLING YOU WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING?

To use me as an example again, my 5 hours-a-week thing might not work. In fact, it’s patently unsustainable. I’m aware of this. I know I’ll have a window of only a few months at best to rejigger my situation so it is sustainable before I start to risk a nasty case of burnout. It’s not clear what the best way to that is yet, but the situation will end, one way or another. If I get burnt out and can no longer do the work, my sideline will just go under and I’ll recover and go back to the original plan of marketing Change Catalyst the way the plan was in January 2013. It’ll hurt a little bit economically, and I’ll lose some momentum with CC, but life is long, and after a while it will just be a blip in my memory. Remember what a clusterfuck 2013 was? Almost as bad as 2006!

But if I do manage to rejigger things, I’ll have a really solid, mostly passive income stream– I mean, look at how it grew without any intervention from me. If I can harness it properly, and scale it effectively, I’ll be good. This is the heart of entrepreneurship.

But there’s no playbook for this. I can’t automate yet, every thing is too new and messy. I can’t fail the system. There is no system.

There’s just me, trying to take my circumstances and play them to my best advantage.

And if things aren’t going exactly how you planned, I’ll bet that’s what you’re doing, too.

Care to share what’s not going according to plan in your life?


19 thoughts on “In Which We Talk About System Failures (Complete with Examples)”

  1. Mmm, plans. You know, for as much as I’ve been working on seeing rules as guidelines instead of YOU-MUST-DO-IT-THIS-WAYs, you’d think I’d have realized my own plans are sort of the same thing. …oh.
    For me there’s a constant struggle to figure out when I’m dragging my feet because something is hard or unpleasant or scary and when I legitimately need to downshift. Learning to see the whole picture helps, because rarely is the thing I’m struggling with ever the only thing going on. And sometimes when I step back, I want to klonk myself over the head for not seeing the GIGANTIC OTHER THING that’s sapping my abilities without me realizing what a huge draw it really is. Three cheers for self knowledge 🙂

    1. remadebyhand  
      It’s surprising (and aggravating!) how minutely we sometimes have to break things down, in order to see how all these trees are part of the *same-damn* forest, isn’t it? 
      {Hoo-boy, what a convoluted metaphor-mash-up — I just could not get it untangled! Does it make sense, though? – K}

  2. The only reason my list of what’s not going according to plan isn’t a mile long is that I don’t tend to make too many plans. However, much like you, if you had asked me how I envisioned this year, it would most definitely have included a lot more time spent marketing my own business and a lot less time doing events that used up all of time and brain capacity in a desperate effort to keep a roof over my head so I could live in the place where the events work was. Now I’m starting to do more of my own marketing (finally!) and realizing how much freakin’ effort and energy it takes… So, in short, I feel you.

    1. sarahemily Is it also a self-image thing for you, too? I always pride myself on being a person who does what she says she will, and it kind of kills me every time I’m like “I need to post today.” and then after the more important stuff is done, I no longer have the energy to write.

      1. Shanna Mann sarahemily I think there are remnants of that for me. I used to be a person who prided myself on that kind of thing although I don’t know that I can say I am anymore. It’s not that I don’t honor commitments; it’s just that I try to make fewer of them. But yeah, I guess I’ve always been someone who’s managed to do All The Things… I usually have no problem accomplishing whatever I set my mind to… so it’s weird that business has so far proved to be much more of a challenge than anything I’ve undertaken before, thanks to all these crazy underlying issues… it does truly show us all of our stuff. All at once, much of the time.

  3. I’m just happy the universe has stopped asking you, “Can you take this? Huh? Can you take this <insert naughty words here>?
    I’m in the process of downshifting for the next 3-4 months because your hypothetical situation from this post – having a second kid – is happening to me in the next month-ish. I’ve been happy with the relative high gear I’ve maintained in the past twelve months since Value of Simple was born. Some of the results are disappointing, but the effort certainly is there.
    I’m pretty confident I can keep the energy high except on my worst sleep-deprived and zombified days of dealing with a needy infant. You know what would help even more? If you turned all the words below the sub-heading “How Did We Get Into This Mess” into a pretty poster and sold it to me. I’d buy it. They freakin’ rock that much.

    1. joeyjoejoe You seem to have a thing for posters, Joel! I’ve always admired your ability to roll with the punches. Can’t wait to see how you do with an infant in the house.

  4. Ah, yes, we have to be so flexible and not marry our plans. So easy to say and so hard to do. One of the other challenges is knowing when something you are doing isn’t working and isn’t going to work, so you have to abandon it and move onto something else. That’s another one of those times when you really have to analyze every aspect of what you’re doing and then make tough decisions. No matter what happens, life likes to send us curve balls. I sometimes think that life just likes to f&^k with us, but that’s only when I’m fighting the whole adjustment process. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. Alyxandria Straight Up Talk  I think life likes to fuck with us too. I just pretend I’m in the Matrix and I can dodge bullets. I have to say, no single thing has been better for my confidence than realizing how truly resilient I am.

  5. michaelwroberts

    You make a great point about our plans not always fitting the actuality of our lives. I’m far too ambitious with what I think I can accomplish in a certain amount of time, and I begin to feel the pressure of falling behind as a greater discouragement to finishing. I think that flexibility will have to play a larger role in life plans going forward.

    1. michaelwroberts  
      Yes. That: “Plans don’t always fit our actualities!”  
      I just let someone know that their plans don’t fit my actualities, right now. Tough one, but it had to be done, and the sooner-the-better. And I didn’t die and neither did he! 🙂

  6. I’m learning to grok this poster over my computer ever more deeply ~ 
    “If Plan A doesn’t work out, it’ll still be Okay! The alphabet has 25 more letters!”   
    {{{Shanna}}} – and *all of us*!

  7. I think I’ve been trying to make my situation fit my plans and didn’t realize it. I’m very glad I read that sentence in your post because I’ve been really frustrated lately. What’s not going according to plan is my living situation. I thought I would have moved back to CT by now, or anywhere in New England and something keeps getting in the way. Some setback always comes up. And I have no interest in adapting to the South so that makes it harder.

  8. Shanna Mann!  Things seem to be going to plan, but it would be nice if we could juice them and speed things up a tad. That is of course without totally effing things up!  Have a breezy one!

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