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Do You Know What You Measure… Or Measure What You Know?

Guest Post by Bill Hornbeck, Technology Entrepreneur and Futurist

Photo of Bill Hornbeck

Bill Hornbeck, Technology Entrepreneur and Futurist

Facts and perception of facts are the matter and anti-matter of decision making.  Bring them together with a false sense of certainty and one runs the risk of annihilating the anticipated outcome. And, that’s a fact.

I learned this the hard way during the recent summer storm that knocked out electricity to over one million businesses and homes throughout the Washington DC metro area. Many locations were without power through the entire Fourth of July holiday week, all suffering under a blanket of ultra-high heat and humidity that drove temperatures well above 100 degrees.

It was a powerful, unexpected, and rapid maelstrom destined to wreak havoc. It was also destined to change the planning outlook for business, family, and community leaders.

I felt particularly smug beforehand. I think of myself as a capable guy, a business planner and operations guy, one who can think, visualize, and prepare. For example, I have properly prepared for unexpected power failures. Oops! I was wrong on this one.

We have a large outdoor generator at my home in western Loudoun County that is fueled effortlessly through a connection to the underground propane storage tank. When the power goes out, I flip a switch, the generator revs up, the power comes back on for a select group of circuits in the home, and life can continue, although somewhat constrained. My primary responsibility is to (a) make sure the generator is in top operating order and (2) make sure that the tank has plenty of propane inside. Not a difficult job.

In fact, I was totally in command here. I had recently arranged for a tune-up of the generator engine that included new hoses, fluids and parts. It was continually tested and ready-to-go when needed. I had also regularly checked the status of the propane gauge to be certain of its fuel level.  400 gallons on hand.  All was good with the world.

The storm hit in the dark of night, the power went out, and I threw the switch. The generator hummed, it purred, it ran like a champ. All was good with the world.

Then, just 24 hours later, again during dark of night, the generator went dead stop. All was not good with the world.

So here is where facts and perception of facts can mix in a conflagration. And, here is one of the great lessons of business and life. I implored my neighbor Jim to take a look at the problem. He perused, he tinkered, he analyzed, he called another buddy. They clanged and banged a little bit. Then came the pronouncement. “Hey Bill, everything looks good as far as the likelihood of engine failure. You just have to be out of propane!” “Not true,” I said, “I have checked the fuel gauge for weeks now. It shows 400 gallons available on the dial and you can see that for yourself.”

“Let’s see,” said Jim, as I waded through the flower beds to locate the cover to the propane tank. There it was. “Look,” I said, “You can clearly see that the fuel level needle is pointed at 400 gallons!” Jim looked.

Then, one of life’s wonderful revelations materialized from within that fuel chamber.  Like a baseball bat that smacks you up the side of your head. A formulation of clunky wisdom that will forever reside along the failure points of mental smugness.

Jim calmly took out his hammer. He held the hammerhead in the palm of his hand while he gently tapped the gauge on its faceplate with the handle. Boing! The needle on the gauge immediately swung downward in what I experienced as a time-warp, a slow motion caricature of itself… indeed, what seemed to be the absolute sludge nudge of time as the needle centered directly on the point of zero.

“Things are not always as you believe them to be,” said Jim. “Sometimes you need to tap the gauge!”

And, so it is in business, too. Whenever you think you know what’s true, don’t ever forget to test your thinking. Sometimes you need to tap the gauge.

At another time, let me tell you what I learned from the bulldozer operator.

© 2012. All rights reserved.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I love this. So true. Thanks for sharing.

    July 10, 2012

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