The Seneca Cliff

When I wrote the book, “The High-Impact PMO[1], in 2017, my true and hidden goal was to help PMOs prepare for “unusual unfolding” of their business environment.

My belief was that human history may be more a succession of big surprises than a long series of small evolutions. I also learned by experience that what really moves businesses, organizations and societies are the (strategic) projects they undertake. That PMOs should prepare to unforeseen events if they were to successfully support projects was an evidence to me.

One of the paragraphs concerned the Seneca Cliff[2], a phenomenon studied by Ugo Bardi or François Roddier, also called collapse, avalanche, disaster, failures, or all sorts of adverse effects.

About 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca wrote to his friend Licilius[3] noting that “growth is slow, but ruin is rapid”

Seneca was a good Stoic. He knew that we must always be prepared for the future, knowing full well that ruin can come upon us at any moment. This is true for individuals as well as for an entire society.

He wrote in his letter that “it would be some consolation for the feebleness of ourselves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has very abruptly put billions of people in very difficult situations. This “Seneca Cliff” unfortunately seems to me nothing more than a wake-up call and the trigger of bigger “unusual unfoldings”. It is a call to anticipate a much bigger “Seneca Cliff” where financial, social, and political systems could very well be shaken in a way none of us can imagine today.

I remember another chapter of my book. It says how difficult, if not impossible, it is to forecast a future. Do not ever try to forecast this second “Seneca Cliff”. Any event of this kind is unpredictable. But conversely, prepare for its consequences. Here you are in the domain of certainty.

And this is where the Project Management community and the PMOs can have a huge value. This is still more true for those who evolve close to the strategic levels of their organization. They can have indeed a strong influence on the system behavior. They can explore and adjust the position of their organization between order and chaos.

A single recommendation? Study and learn what Nassim Taleb, the author of the wonderful “Incerto[4], calls a barbell strategy: “A barbell strategy is to be as hyper-conservative and hyper-aggressive as you can be instead of being mildly aggressive or conservative: taking maximum exposure to the positive Black Swans while remaining paranoid about the negative ones.”

May I remind that “a Black Swan event is a highly unexpected event for certain observers, that carries large consequences and that is subjected to ex-post rationalization.” A pandemic is a Black Swan for some, a White Swan for others.

Stay safe, wear a mask and respect social distancing


[Note: I beg your indulgence for the Globish language I am using in this article. Any copyediting from one of you, dear reader, will be highly appreciated.]

[1] Husser, Philippe, The High-Impact PMO, Amazon Publishing, 2017

[2] Bardi, Ugo, The Seneca Effect: Why Growth is Slow But Collapse is Rapid. Springer. 2017

[3] Seneca, Lucius Anneaus, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

[4] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas, Incerto, Incerto: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, Antifragile, Skin in the Game, 2019

You can also read some of my most successful articles here:

High-Impact PMO

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