the Meaning of Cluster-Fuck

Let’s say the situation at work is not good. The project (or product, or re-org, or whatever) has launched, and the best you can say is that things aren’t going as planned. At all. It’s a disaster, though the best word for it is the one you drop over drinks with your team and when venting at home: it’s a clusterfuck.

Clusterfucks hold a special place in public life, one distinct from the complications, crises, and catastrophes that mar our personal and professional existences. The F-Wordformer Oxford English Dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower’s comprehensive history of the term, defines a clusterfuck as “a bungled or confused undertaking or situation.” Stanford business professor Bob Sutton goes further, describing clusterfucks as “those debacles and disasters caused by a deadly brew of illusion, impatience, and incompetence that afflicts too many decision-makers, especially those in powerful, confident, and prestigious groups.”

The term dates at least as far back as the Vietnam War, as military slang for doomed decisions resulting from the toxic combination of too many high-ranking officers and too little on-the-ground information. (The “cluster” part of the word allegedly refers to officers’ oak leaf cluster insignia.)

“I have a weird obsession with clusterfucks,” Sutton tells Quartz At Work. He and Stanford Graduate School of Business colleague Huggy Rao took on the topic directly in their 2014 book Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, though publishers demanded that the softer substitute “clusterfug” appear in the final text. (This was not Sutton’s choice: His other books include The No Asshole Rule and The Asshole Survival Guide.)

To appreciate what a clusterfuck is—and to understand how to avoid one—it is first helpful to clarify some of the things a clusterfuck is not:

A fuck-up. “A fuck-up is just something all of us do every day,” Sutton says. “I broke the egg I made for breakfast this morning. That was kind of a fuck-up.” Whereas clusterfucks are perfectly preventable, fuck-ups are an unavoidable feature of the human condition.

A SNAFU. While sometimes used as a synonym for minor malfunctions and hiccups, this slang military acronym—“Situation Normal, All Fucked Up”—actually refers to the functionally messy state that describes many otherwise healthy companies (and many of our personal lives). A SNAFU work environment is usually manageable; one that is FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Repair, another military legacy) probably isn’t. “When my students with little experience go to work at a famous company and it isn’t quite as they dreamed, I do ask them if it is FUBAR or SNAFU, and tell them SNAFU will describe most places they work,” Sutton said.

 A shitshow. No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary describes a shitshow as a “situation or state of affairs characterized by chaos, confusion, or incompetence.” A clusterfuck may come to possess all those characteristics, but is more properly identified by the decisions that produced it than its outcome.

The three main contributors to clusterfucks

Sutton and Rao analyzed countless cases of scaling and expansion, both successful ones and those that ended in disaster. In reviewing the most spectacular failures, they identified three key factors that resulted in the kind of expensive, embarrassing, late-stage collapse that is the hallmark of a clusterfuck. They were:

Illusion. A clusterfuck starts with the decision maker’s belief that a goal is much easier to attain than it actually is. The expectation that two car companies with different languages and different cultures would merge together flawlessly, as the architects of the doomed Daimler-Chrysler merger apparently believed? Clusterfuck. The Bush Administration’s estimate that the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq would take no more than a few months and $60 billion? A clusterfuck prelude of tragic proportions.

Impatience. A misguided idea alone does not produce a clusterfuck. The idea also needs a champion determined to shove it along, usually over the objections of more-knowledgeable underlings. Sergey Brin’s reported insistence (paywall) on introducing Google Glass to the public against its engineers’ wishes turned a potentially groundbreaking piece of technology into a stupid-looking joke.

Incompetence. When errors of information and timing meet blatantly stupid decisions by people who should know better, disaster tends to ensue. Bear Stearns wasn’t the sole cause of the global financial crisis, of course, but former CEO Jimmy Cayne’s decision to spend 10 days of the 2007 subprime mortgage loan meltdown playing at a bridge tournament without phone or email access contributed to the firm’s collapse—and to the worldwide disaster that followed.

All three of these failings share a common root: people in power who don’t (or won’t) acknowledge the realities of their environment, and who don’t push themselves to confront what they don’t know. Nobody likes to spoil the heady euphoria of an exciting new project by discussing the possibility of failure. The problem is, if potentially bad outcomes aren’t addressed pre-launch, they are more likely to surface afterward, when the reckoning is public and expensive.

The antidote to clusterfuckery, Sutton argues, is a willingness to confront the possibility of failure and disappointment built into every new venture, and to plan accordingly.

He cites a favored decision-making tactic of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman (who in turn credits it to psychologist Gary Klein). Before a big decision, teams should undertake what Kahneman calls a “premortem.” Split the group in two. One is assigned to imagine a future in which the project is an unmitigated success. The other is to envision its worst-case scenario. Each group then writes a detailed story of the project’s success or failure, outlining the steps and decisions that led to each outcome. Imagining failure and thinking backwards to its causes helps groups identify the strengths and weaknesses of their current plans, and adjust accordingly.

“People make better decisions when they look into the future and they imagine that they already failed, and they tell a story about what happened,” Sutton says. With better planning, it won’t be a story that has to be bleeped out.

the not so Fashionable Arts: Thank you, Bob

DYLAN wins Nobel prize for literature!bob-1

It is about time that Mr. Bob Dylan received award for what many of us have known for years.

Through a caustic and distinctive voice, his words have touched so many.  Interpreted our lives.  Made common our troubles.  Personally, I believe him to be the greatest poet living.

 

Shelter from the Storm

Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Now there’s a wall between us, somethin’ there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence I got repaid with scorn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the stormbob-3

the Scorn of Schizophrenia

John Nash, a Beautiful Mind; on Madness as a Release

People are always selling the idea that people with mental illness are suffering. I think madness can be an escape. If things are not so good, you maybe want to imagine something better.

Nash had won the Nobel Prize.  He was one of the great mathematicians of the our times.  He had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia

 

Brian Wilson, former Beach Boy.  Musician extraordinaire.  Many a music critic considering him one the best lyricist, stylist, composers…of our times.  Diagnosed with schizophrenia, the Beach Boy, found himself in the hands of a controlling, dictator, doctor.  As is common with misdiagnose, it took years for Mr. Wilson to find his way out from under the thumb of a common therapy…over-medicating.

 

Bettie Page, America’s one an only Pin-up girl.  Shunning the conventionality of the 1950’s by performing in ‘Adult’ films.  Bettie has had fans that span the last 6 decades.  Bettie battled acute schizophrenia beginning in the early 1970s.

“I could never tell anyone about what I was actually thinking.  When I did!  I found myself alone in a cement room with no windows.  Every voice I heard meant more time alone!”

-M. O’Shaughnessy

In most instances, the signs were there.  The delusions, the paranoia, the isolation.  Yet, as a society, we opt for ignorance.  And, if ignorance isn’t a stigma for mental health.  Indifference is.  Indifference to an early appropriate diagnose.  Indifference to a balance between therapy and medication.  Indifference to the silent signs being held out for, help!

 

Mental Health Reform

One thing that most Americans can agree on is that the mental health system is broken. In many parts of the country, mental health treatment, services and supports are not available until a crises occurs. In some communities, jails and prisons have become the default place for mental health treatment.

The facts make one thing clear: mental illness is a major public health crisis in the U.S. today. However, changes to our mental health system can help address this crisis.

– See more at: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Public-Policy/Mental-Health-Reform#sthash.whzpFQBd.dpuf

 

Mental Illness is not a decision.  Ignorance is the true disability!


My spouse, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, is an active, productive, member of society.  It is through her personal triumphs, distant voices, distant rooms, that I have been encouraged.  Encouraged to not shy away from what I do not understand.  Her struggles with mental health has become her greatest adversary.  It is by her brave honesty that we can begin to open closed minds.