Why no one lives on Easter Island: Lessons for avoiding disastrous decisions

Heads on Easter Island

“Ahu Tongariki – Rapa Nui (Easter Island)” by Bradenfox – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ahu_Tongariki_-_Rapa_Nui_(Easter_Island).JPG#mediaviewer/File:Ahu_Tongariki_-_Rapa_Nui_(Easter_Island).JPG

What on earth were the Easter Islanders thinking when they chopped down the very last tree on their island? How were they going to cook the next day? What would they use to build their huts? Their canoes? How could they have done such a dumb thing!!! This is a question Jared Diamond asks in Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, and his answer details the mistakes they made, some of which are mistakes that ministry leadership teams could make as well. Diamond says that civilization on Easter Island died because of two primary factors: 1) human environmental impact, especially deforestation and destruction of the bird population; and 2) the political, social and religious factors that were the driving motivations behind the destructive behaviours. Why didn’t they see they were on the road to destruction? That’s the topic of this post.

Read the book for a fascinating explanation of what happened on Easter Island and Pitcairn Island, why there are no more Mayans and why the Vikings died out in Greenland, why the Dominican Republic and Haiti share the same island but are in such different circumstances, the real story behind the genocide in Rwanda, the disastrous conditions that exist today in China and Australia, and what all this means for our civilization. We can avoid disastrous decisions if we learn from history.

Diamond says the factors that contribute to poor decision making are:

  • Failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives
    • The primary problem is not thinking ahead of a decision’s consequences. Australian settlers introduced rabbits and foxes to Australia with disastrous results that are still with us today.
      • Leadership Check: Decisions are usually made to fix an immediate problem (the Australians wanted some animals they were familiar with from home) or to exploit an immediate opportunity (“There’s gold in them thar’ hills!”). Your analysis should go much deeper and:
        • Follow the decision through for its intended and unintended consequences. What do foxes and rabbits eat? How many rabbits will there be in a hundred years? Are there any predators to control the fox population? Ooops! If you do “X”, what affect might that have on “Y” (public opinion, other programs, co-dependency relationships, etc.).
        • Speculate as to what might happen. What if a bad economy results in fewer donations? Do scenario planning and define the leading indicators for each scenario.
    • Some societies simply forget the past and have the ‘joy’ of discovering the consequences of the same bad decisions again and again. It didn’t take too long after the oil crisis of 1973 before gas-guzzling SUVs were being sold.
      • Leadership Check: Know your history! Why learn from your own mistakes when you can learn from others??!! Find out about strategic leadership initiatives that others have tried and failed. There are books about strategic failures, magazines such as the Harvard Business Review regularly analyze stories of success and failure, and an Internet search turns up lots of resource material. Now, don’t take this too far and say just because it was tried unsuccessfully before you won’t try it again. Make sure you understand why it failed, and then see if circumstances are different today or if a different strategy might fare better.
    • Sometimes we fail to recognize a potential problem because we use a false analogy to analyze the consequences. When the Vikings landed in Iceland and saw the same kind of trees they knew from home, they thought they could harvest them the same way. What they didn’t realize was that soil conditions were different, and once the trees were cut down, the topsoil blew away and nothing could grow again.
      • Leadership Check: Don’t be too quick to say “This is like that.” Leaders make this mistake all the time, taking what worked elsewhere thinking it will work for them. It might work, but are the situations similar enough that the strategy is transferable? If you dig deep enough into a success story, you will often find there were a few key factors without which the strategy would not have worked. Be sure those factors apply to you too before applying the strategy.
  • Failure to perceive a problem when it arrives
    • Some problems are imperceptible, such as the amount of nutrients in soil. The first few crops planted in Australia grew, but they sucked the last remaining nutrients out of the soil.
      • Leadership Check: Check your assumptions!!!! Have someone who isn’t immersed in your ministry’s culture review the plan and tell you what they think your assumptions are. We often mistake assumptions for givens.
    • Some problems are not seen because the managers are too far away. They don’t know what is happening “on the ground.”
      • Leadership Check: This is why field visits are so important. I make it a point when travelling to stop in and see as many of our members as I can. It is why I want to hear first-hand from staff about their interactions with our members. It is why I want to see selected raw data as well as the executive summary and report. I’m not going to analyze the data again, but looking at it gives me a better grasp on what was said. Leadership cannot afford to be isolated from the frontline.
    • It is difficult to spot a problem when it takes the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. Global warming is a prime example. When this happens, it results in “creeping normalcy.” The change is so gradual people don’t notice it. The change is only noticed when people remember long enough ago to say, “Didn’t that mountain used to have snow all year on it?”
      • Leadership Check: While year-over-year comparisons are helpful, don’t neglect decade-over-decade comparisons (or some other suitably long time frame). For example, our membership retention rate at CCCC fluctuates up and down by about 0.75% each year, so the year-to-year comparison really doesn’t mean all that much. What matters is that the records show that it has never varied outside the range of 94 to 97%. So if it started falling by 0.3% each year, that wouldn’t be the end of the world because annually that is within the normal fluctuation. But if the rate declined below 94%, that would be news. But we’d only know that by paying attention to the longer term trends. So keep a rolling average of say five years, or maybe ten years, to screen out short term fluctuations and uncover the longer term trends. Then use a comparison of this year to five years ago to check for creeping normalcy. Apply the same evaluation methods to your environmental scans.
  • Failure to even attempt to fix a problem once it has been noticed
    • Some people figure they can personally profit at the expense of others, so they continue with bad behaviour (eg. polluting) that has immediate profits for them and leaves the problem for others to clean up.
      • Leadership Check: This is where politics enters the equation. We normally think of “office politics” as a bad thing, but really it is neutral. In Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership,Bolman and Deal define politics as “the realistic process of making decisions and allocating resources in a context of scarcity and divergent interests.” It becomes bad when people start campaigning for the welfare of their department rather than the welfare of the organization. As the organizational leader it is your job to set the terms on which the decisions will be made:
        • first and foremost, the good of the whole ministry takes priority over any particular component of it
        • just as important, all decisions must align with the organization’s values, and
        • the best choice is the one that best advances the mission.
    • People might continue doing something harmful (overfishing for example) because if they don’t do it, they  believe someone else will. Since the resources will be depleted anyway, they might as well get what they can while they can.
      • Leadership Check: This should not be a problem for a Christian ministry, but you never know. As a leader, you must always be sure that your decisions are to do what is right, not just for your ministry, but for the benefit of the kingdom of God and the world that God is wooing. Take the high road and be a model, a paragon of virtue.
    • We cling to values that no longer make sense. Montana’s state government hasn’t been willing to deal with the problems caused by mining, logging and ranching because they are the pillars of Montana’s pioneer spirit and identity.
      • Leadership Check: Challenge everything about your ministry. You don’t change for the sake of changing, but neither should you fossilize for the sake of fossilizing! Previous leaders did what had to be done in their generation and you must do the same for yours. So challenge the sacred cows. Challenge conventional thinking. The question is, “Does this still work for us today?” It could be a cultural value, a program or a methodology. Challenge them all and prove they are still working better for you today than any other alternative available to you.
    • We don’t like the people who have identified the problem, so we don’t take it seriously. This is why it has taken so long to accept the reality of global warming.
      • Leadership Check: You don’t have to like someone to agree with them. Forget who said it and focus on the value of what they are saying. Is it a good argument?
    • A clash between short and long term motives can prevent people from taking action. Politicians are unlikely to think beyond the next election.
      • Leadership Check: This is where the Christian concept of stewardship should be a vital part of your leadership. It is not your ministry (even if it is named after you!). You are a steward caring for Christ’s ministry, and as such you should be thinking very long term, certainly much longer than your presence on the leadership team. When you “check out,”  what report will you give the Owner? Will you be turning over an orchard with no trees in it because you used them all up or will you give back a rich, productive and valuable orchard brimming with trees for the next steward to use?
    • Crowd psychology can easily get otherwise rational people caught up in the excitement of the moment and lead to dangerous things being done.
      • Leadership Check: The best protection is to forget what the crowd is doing and check out the fundamental issue yourself. Does it make sense? A lot of ministries got suckered into the New Era Philanthropy ponzi scheme because they did what everyone else did and didn’t do their own due diligence. The few major ministries that did not take part checked the so-called investment out for themselves and decided the underlying premise didn’t make sense.
    • Groupthink occurs when stress and the need for mutual approval lead people to suppress their doubts and critical-thinking skills.
      • Leadership Check: Groupthink is why you need a “devil’s advocate,” someone to do their best to promote a different decision. You need to have real alternatives, not just an assumed single option. You need to test your thinking with outsiders, or the board. Every organization likely has cherished beliefs about itself that are no longer true or relevant. If a decision seems too easy or too obvious, perhaps it’s because you haven’t thought deeply enough about it or tried hard enough to find real alternatives. Do the work!
    • Psychological denial occurs when something is so painful to think about that you deny its possibility. People living right below a dam often say they do not believe the dam could burst.
      • Leadership Check: Consult with people who are more removed from your situation. They will be more objective. If you are honest with yourself, what are you most afraid of regarding the continuing viability of your ministry? What have you said will never happen? Get it out in the open, because only then can you deal with it.
  • Finally, the problem may not be solvable, it may be prohibitively expensive to solve, or our efforts may be too little or too late.
    • Leadership Check: I’m not sure what to suggest here. Do you bail? Do you keep plugging away regardless? We never know what the true unsolvable barriers are until we try to break through them. Some of the best inventions discovered or the best things people have done have been accomplished after tremendous effort and repeated failures. Are you Don Quixote wasting your life tilting at windmills or are you Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb after 1,000 failed experiments? (Edison said they weren’t failures; he was just finding many ways not to make a light bulb – there’s positive thinking!) Answering the Quixote/Edison question is what leaders get paid for. As Kenny Rogers sang in The Gambler:

“You got to know when to hold ’em,  know when to fold ’em,
know when to walk away and when to run.”

 

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