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The Illusion of Control

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus


Picture this scene: You get to a crosswalk in a busy part of town, on your way to a scheduled meeting to set next year’s strategic plan. You push the button to get the ‘walk’ signal. Later, when you arrive at the office building, you enter the elevator and push the ‘door closed’ button. Finally, you arrive to the meeting room and notice that the temperature is quite warm for this time of year, so you lower the wall thermostat and start your meeting.

What do all of these activities have in common? The illusion that you have control. In almost all situations like the ones I just listed, you are presented with “placebo buttons.”

In reality, the elevator ‘close’ button is regulated by the American with Disabilities Act and must stay open for a certain pre-programmed time to allow for disabled persons to enter. In New York City, only about 1% of the crosswalk buttons are truly active. Rather, the lights are controlled by central programing to keep traffic flowing smoothly; the button clicks and may even light up, but will not trigger the ‘walk’ sign to come on. The same is true in almost all office buildings: the cooling towers are controlled centrally, but the building maintenance puts in fake thermostats, that even make a hissing sound or a click to satisfy your impulse to change. It keeps the maintenance requests down because you believe you are controlling the temperature. And lastly, the same illusion of control is present in your strategic planning meeting: you work with assumptions, tunnel-vision, and overconfidence to predict the outcome of the market to give your company the desired results that your shareholders want.

Can you really control market demand? Do you have control over the unemployment rate, the interest rate, the stock market, consumer confidence, or the amount of money the Federal Reserve just released into the financial system, to name just a few? What about the results of the election or when Covid-19 will subside? When we make plans like this, we are assuming that all of those factors will stay the same. But in life and in business, things change at lightning speed. The internet, social media, the 24-hours news cycle: all of these outlets can change a normal day into a frenzy. So how do we cope? We give ourselves this Illusion of Control.

Ellen Langer pioneered the term “Illusion of Control” in 1975, defining it as “the tendency for human beings to believe they can control, or at least influence, the outcomes that they have no influence over.”

If you want real control in your life, and not an illusion of it, then the only thing that you can really control is your response to what happens in the world. For instance, how you respond to a difficult customer or how your company will respond if interest rates hit double digits. The best solution? Focus on Scenario Planning, not Strategic Planning, and you’ll be prepared and have some semblance of control over whatever scenario pops up!

So, stop pretending you can control anyone, or the events of the world. Instead, start by making plans for your life and business based on a scenario that is likely to occur. Remember, the only thing you have control over is you and your responses!

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