Running On Empty

Lance Discipline, Ideas, Leadership Leave a Comment

The choreography of a modern F1 pit stop is a thing of beauty, involving such precision and artistry. A soundtrack by Mozart would be perfect here:



What you do not see in that clip is any attempt at refueling. It’s not that it was so fast you missed it. Refueling simply doesn’t happen during an F1 race: by rule, each car is limited to 100kg of fuel per race. While there are a lot of variables in play during a race, there is one foundational constant that makes a rule like this possible: the length of the race. For example, because the United States Grand Prix (run this past Sunday) is known ahead of time to be exactly 56 laps on a 5.513 km track, everyone involved knows well in advance what is required to succeed: no matter what may happen during the race, each car must travel exactly 308.405 km to make it from start to finish. Despite all the complications of knowing how much fuel is needed and how best to manage it, the static nature of the race length makes predictability achievable. You just have to work out some complicated math.

In the real world, Life doesn’t come with knowable, fixed parameters on our daily travel. As a result, the need to stop for refueling itself is the constant. On average, most drivers refuel their vehicles once a week. This means that if you’re the prudent type, you are making a pit stop 52 times a year once that fuel gage reaches 1/4 of a tank. It would be much more efficient to hold off refueling until the gauge gets to “E” — think of all the time and money you could spend elsewhere by saving 14 trips to the gas station. Of course, the trade-off for such efficiency is the margin for error. This level of efficiency in regulating your own personal refueling activities is rightly seen as foolish (at best) because of the inevitable unpredictability of Real Life: traffic, change of plans, availability of gas stations, etc.

Straining to live life so efficiently with zero margin for error is a recipe for disaster. This is why prudence demands that —

  • we routinely get gas before we absolutely need to rather than squeezing ever last mile out of our gas tank before refueling;
  • we set aside a sizable amount of money in a savings account as an emergency fund in preparation for the unexpected rather than put every dollar to “work” as efficiently as possible;
  • we carve out “margins” in our lives rather than filling every last available minute with the most productive activity we can.

Why, then, would we lead our businesses and organizations any other way? Pushing the limits of how much you can get done with the very fewest number of people/tools/resources possible will likely yield an increase in efficiency, and thus, profitability. At stake, however, is the bet you are placing on this more fundamental question: that the race you are in is finite and knowable, complicated but predictable. If it turns out you are actually operating in a complex, inherently unpredictable environment, then the sacrificing of your margin for error in favor of an increase in efficiency is building a trap for your organization and daring Life to trigger it.

Here’s hoping you’re right and you have enough fuel to finish. If not, you can take comfort in knowing that it happens to the best of them …



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