Tools: Apples, oranges and uncertainty

Most of us tend to believe we must go out and shake a few trees to make things happen. I would not deny that it’s necessary, but I have seldom seen it pay off in a linear fashion. It seems to work more like we shake the apple tree and the universe delivers oranges.
[Screenwriter Julia Cameron, in ‘The Artist’s Way‘ (part paraphrased)]

Most business processes are centred on control, on certainty: if we’re set up to expect apples, and we go out to shake an apple tree, we expect to get apples, and nothing else! And it does work, sort-of – or well enough, at least, to support a dangerous illusion that control is actually possible…

A simple business example: Back in the typesetting business, we spent months working with a major prospect, developing experimental tools for their specialist needs, and so on – the end-result of which was a tiny job that barely covered a tenth of our costs. As you can imagine, were somewhat upset about this unfairness of ‘the universe’ (as Julia Cameron might put it). But the next day, out of the blue, we were contacted by another publishing company about a small experimental job they wanted us to do. In one brief conversation, they quickly expanded the job to a much larger one – which turned out to be almost exactly what we’d planned to do for our previous client, though none of us had known it at the time.

It seemed so easy, so effortless, that it took us a while to recognise that in this case ‘the universe’ was being just as ‘unfair’ as before – but this time in our favour. It was ‘effortless’, in fact, only because we’d already put in all the required effort elsewhere. And it was the same with publicity: the few direct responses we had from thousands of dollars of trade advertising rarely covered our costs, but our best clients almost invariably came to us via a long trail of connections which eventually led back to someone – often entirely unconnected with publishing – who’d once seen one of our adverts. Over time, it did all seem to balance: some clients were easy, some were hard, some were complete time-wasters, and others were immensely supportive – but we could never tell beforehand which way each new prospect would go. And whilst we did need to go out and ‘shake a few trees’ every now and then, in terms of publicity, the results were rarely predictable!

That is the way that business actually works. We may want it to be more predictable, more controllable – but it isn’t. And designing a business system as if business is predictable and controllable is really foolish – yet that’s the way it’s usually done…

A ‘control’-based business system leaves us wide open to the the incursions of Murphy’s Law, yet provides no space for the weird workings of Inverse Murphy – which is the place where new business opportunities actually arise. For example, every business ends up with ‘waste product’ of some kind or another – even if it’s only paperwork! So how could you change that ‘waste’ into something useful, and profitable? By allowing yourself to notice what actually happens when you ‘shake the apple tree’, that’s how… By allowing its staff to notice and follow up out-of-the-way ideas, a large Australian quarry company discovered that much of its mountain of crusher-dust – nominally a waste-product from its main business of road-making materials – had very high value as a soil-conditioner. Not in the market the company was used to, or was set up to sell to, of course: but for a product that had a retail price measured in dollars per kilogram instead of the company’s more usual dollars per tonne, it was a market well worth developing!

So what’s happening in your company? Do your business processes allow enough – or any – room for Inverse Murphy? Or do you simply complain about Murphy’s Law, and that the world is being unfair when oranges fall out of the apple tree?

Although learning to work with the weirdness of the world in business can be strange – even frightening – at times, it often returns valuable fruit. But it can only work if you allow yourself to notice what actually falls out of the tree when you shake it – and allow yourself, and your company, to create new opportunities from whatever happens when you do so.

Your choice…

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is a bestselling workbook on reclaiming creativity, based on a twelve-week course Cameron regularly ran for screenwriters and other professionals in the entertainment industry. Although it’s aimed more at personal creativity, it’s easily adapted for use in a business sense – where creativity is also undoubtedly important!

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