The Utility Of Tragedy

How unfortunate and often disastrous events help us see clearer.

Not so long ago I was hit with two unfortunate events which have a had a huge impact in the way I see the world and how I conduct myself.

The first was in February 2015. The startup I co-found niafikra was just 3 years old. We had about four projects running concurrently. We thought all the four projects were important for our future and didn’t want to cancel any of the four. Our Engineering team had 5 engineers and we were working day and night to push the four projects. Progress was being made but not at the pace we wanted.

The first unfortunate event happened slowly and compounded over a period of four months. It was the Tanzanian Shilling. Its purchasing power had hit a steep decline. In the four months culminating to the event the shilling had deprecated by 20% against the US Dollar, This was reflected in our expenses. They rose by approximately the same percentage. We watched our funds burn faster.

Now the most natural thing to do was to increase sales to cover the increase in expenses. But this was impossible because of the second unfortunate event. We had oversold / over promised on what our platform was going to deliver to our existing customers. The customers had huge expectations and we were not delivering fast enough. Most of our projects were paid in installments with each installment made once a certain milestone has been reached. We were juggling four big projects with only five engineers; our burn down rate was as to be expected in such a situation extremely disappointing.

Nevertheless we kept pushing though the speed was slow but we were making progress in all the four projects. My biggest headache at the time was finding reasonable explanations to give to our clients as to why the projects are getting delayed.

The third blow came in March. I remember it was sometime in the morning. I had just arrived at the office and was going through my emails when my eyes caught an interesting email. It was from one of our best engineers. He was resigning. Have you ever received a huge blow in the head. At first you feel numb, a few minutes pass and then suddenly the pain starts to sink in. Thats how I felt. I swallowed. Four hours later. I received another email. Another engineer was resigning. Now do the maths. 2/5 multiply by 100. Thats 40% of the engineering force gone in just four hours.

We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to understand the reasons and convince the engineers to stay, but they had made up their minds. That was it there was no way we were going to complete the projects with only 60% of the man-resources. We were f****d. Or at least thats what it seemed.

This brings me to my first point. See our original assumption was that all the four projects were equally important and we were spending approximately the same amount of resources in all four of them. Now with the workforce cut down by 40% it was no longer possible to go with all three. We were then forced to choose what to keep pursuing.

We decided to cancel one project and never do it again; We built up the courage to tell the client that it was a failure and did it. We then remained with three projects. We carefully studied the status of each project and the remaining backlog. We looked at what projects where the client won’t be to operate if we don’t work on it for the next 6 months. It turns out that even if we didn’t work on 2 of the projects the current state of the projects the client was able to still function fully. So we postponed the two. We then remained with one project it turned out that if the remaining 3 engineers spent their time solely on this project it could be completed in 60 days and the client would start paying in 30 days. We put all our effort in that and guess what in 40 days it was up and running and we had already started invoicing the client thus correcting our depleting funds.

Turns out the abundance of resources both financial and human labor had prevented us from looking through, prioritizing and making proper decisions. It took a serious financial tragedy and the resigning of two engineers to get our priorities and perspective in line. Thats when I appreciated that less is more.

This is the utility of tragedy and misfortune. It puts serious constraints on our choices. I think one of the biggest factor contributing to indecision is the ability to afford many choices. When the choices are limited and there is a constraint of an overwhelming time frame and limited resources we are forced to see things clearly and objectively. Separate whats important from what isn’t. Whats necessary from whats just good to have. And most importantly what sacrifices can we make so that we can move forward.

Most of us go through life in a similar manner to water flowing downhill. We just flow and follow the path daily without questioning if its the right direction, can we do better? What happens if we take a different route? We just flow. It takes a serious roadblock to make us stop and think. Thats one of the advantages of misfortune and tragedy. They acts like a dam. They stop us on our feet and makes us seriously reevaluate our situation.

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