Gradually, Then Suddenly

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

ERNEST HEMINGWAY, THE SUN ALSO RISES

There are plenty of times when events catch us completely by surprise.

Maybe what happened was completely unpredictable. Maybe it was so improbable there was no reason for us to be the least bit concerned. Or maybe a few on the inside had an inkling, but it was so esoteric there was little practical reason for it to enter our consciousness.

By now, we have all likely figured out that life is often quite random. And when we are dealing with remote or unknowable probabilities there really isn’t all that much worth doing or worrying about.

But the idea that a major–or even catastrophic–event comes out of nowhere is often dead wrong. The forces that make an organization or leader irrelevant, that tip an iconic brand into bankruptcy, that unleash civil unrest, are rarely brought on by a single event–anticipated or otherwise.

The fact is, whether we like to admit it or not, most often the pressures that spark a crisis have been brewing for quite some time. For many of us–myself included–the problem is that we just weren’t paying sufficient attention. Or maybe we were aware but we failed to take the necessary actions.

The next time we find ourselves saying “my God, how could this happen?” we might consider that perhaps we’re asking the wrong question.