Contingency Planning and Out of Context Problems

Cortez and Montezuma in Mexico City

Cortez and Montezuma in Mexico City

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.  In 1518, the Aztec Empire was the strongest nation in their world.  While they had enemies, no one could really threaten them, and they were constantly growing.  Everything was green pastures and sunny skies.  Then Cortez showed up at the gates of Tenochtitlan.  Four years later, the Aztec Empire had become what would soon be called “New Spain.”

This has become the classic example of what we call an “out of context problem.”  An out of context problem is something for which we have no response, because the problem itself is something we could never have anticipated.  For the Aztecs, it was the Spanish, with their guns, their warships, their armor.  They had no answer to this, because it was too far outside their context.  They couldn’t even understand the problem, let alone evolve a solution in time.

When we do contingency planning in software development, we consider the problems that could crop up, and we work to address them.  At the most basic level, we consider equipment failure, which leads us to design backups.  We consider loss of personnel, and we make sure we have adequate documentation and knowledge sharing.  We consider illness or distraction, so we pad our estimates to allow for less than 100% efficiency.  Looking beyond that, we consider how we would respond to a loss of major clients, to a natural disaster, to a security leak.

No matter how good your contingency planning is, however, you cannot plan for the out of context problem.  That’s part of the definition: it’s the problem that ambushes you because you never knew it could exist.  It’s what happens when Congress passes a new law outlawing whatever technology you were using, or when the problem your software addresses is rendered obsolete by an industry shift.  It’s what happens when the tech bubble bursts, or when the collapse of the housing market leads to a collapse of major financial institutions and a tanking of the US economy.

So how do you prepare for the unpreparable?  Part of it is making sure you have enough resources to weather a temporary crisis.  If you’re operating payday to payday, you don’t have time to react strategically.  And strategic reaction is important, because adjusting to an out of context problem takes time.  Acting on instinct won’t help you, because your instincts are tied up in the context you know.  The first step to addressing an out of context problem will always be repairing your context.

How quickly do you adapt to change?  When you are confronted with a novel problem, do you try to fit it into a familiar box, even if it doesn’t really belong there?  Problem solving ability depends first and foremost on your ability to correctly assess and understand the problem.  If the Aztecs had realized that the world had changed under them, might they have made different decisions?

While you cannot plan for the out of context problem, you can prepare for it, by cultivating adaptability and flexibility, by having a solid escalation plan in place to get early information to the decision makers, and by having enough buffer to weather the inevitable transition time.