Force Majeure, Stuff Happens
How many times have you signed a contract barely scanning its force majeure clause? You know the paragraph, the one with all the legalese that basically lets both parties out of their obligations due to an extraordinary event like the outbreak of a civil war or an act of God such as an earthquake. You don’t read the clause because you never ever expect it to take effect. These things don’t happen, at least not to you. Or do they? Just in the last three months alone we have witnessed a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti killing an estimated 230,000 people and leaving 1,000,000 homeless, over 9 inches of rain causing the worst flooding in 200 years in my home state of Rhode Island, and of course Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull (I couldn’t resist getting this great name in to a blog post) volcano erupting for the first time in 190 years opening up a 2000 foot fissure spewing ash across Europe bringing air travel and the continent to its knees. No one expected any of these events to happen. It seems force majeure is not so rare. Maybe we need to get better at expecting the unexpected. Stuff happens.
It is easy and convenient to think we can’t prepare for unexpected events because of their unpredictability. They always happen to someone else until they don’t. While we can’t know which unexpected events will touch us we do know they inevitably will. Is it possible to prepare? Seems to me it is less about preparing for specific scenarios, each with only a remote possibility of occurring, and more about building the individual and organizational capacity to deal with the unexpected. We all know people and organizations that are just plain better in a crisis. They remain calm and focused, assessing the situation clearly and quickly, before mobilizing available resources toward a viable solution. Of course we also know those that are frozen with fear and inaction when faced with unexpected circumstances. There is a marked difference between those that are prepared to deal with and even take advantage of random events and those that are consistently overwhelmed by unexpected circumstances.
In my experience the prepared share the capacity for resiliency, resourcefulness, and celebrating the unknown. Resiliency, or the ability to take a punch and bounce back, is key to dealing effectively with the unexpected. In the stuff happens context resilience is a capacity to cope with stress and catastrophe bouncing back to homeostasis after a disruption. Timing is everything when dealing with the unexpected. Progress belongs to those that are able to move quickly and take advantage of available resources. Creative resourcefulness is also a key determinant of success in dealing with the unexpected. Being able to quickly assess available resources and to see creative solutions possible by using and recombining resources in new ways can often make all the difference. Think Apollo 13 and its crew trying to get back to earth or that silly “Stuck on the Moon” exercise where you prioritize 15 random items in order to survive. Who hasn’t been amazed by the creative solutions that the nerd or artist sitting next to you came up with? The third characteristic seen in those prepared to deal with the unexpected is the capacity to celebrate the unknown. Rather than fear of the unknown it is important to embrace the unexpected, to see it as an opportunity to learn and improve, and to treat exploring the unknown as an adventure. We all know people who thrive when facing the unknown and actively seek it out. Innovators tend to share this characteristic and always seem to find themselves attracted to a good crisis. They are anything but deer in the headlights and always seem to rise to the occasion when confronted with the unexpected.
Resiliency, resourcefulness, and celebrating the unknown are capabilities that can be developed. Self-awareness, becoming more experimental, and gaining exposure to a broader range of circumstances can enable better preparedness for the unknown. Maybe we need to get better at expecting the unexpected. Stuff happens.