Fortuna: Why Plans Fail


Niccolo Machiavelli used two words in his book, The Prince, to describe the factors that influenced events. In English these are virtue or character (virtu), fortune or chance (fortuna). Only virtue is internal – our nature – and although it manifests as voluntary action, it can only be somewhat, but not entirely controlled.*

The other – chance or fortune – can make the best-laid plans of mice and men go aft agley, as Robert Browning wrote, regardless of our efforts to the contrary.

In Chapter 25 of The Prince (What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs And How To Withstand Her), Machiavelli tried to explain why a leader with free will, with all the means, the desire and resources at his disposal would not always succeed in his endeavours. Virtue alone cannot always win. Luck – chance, fortune, randomness – often simply threw a monkey wrench into the gears.

Machiavelli describes fortune in two metaphors. First as a river that can overflow its banks, treacherously destroying the countryside. That river can be carefully managed by planning for the inevitable flood. Today we would call them worst-case scenarios:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

Machiavelli is saying rather simply: plan for disaster. Prepare for the downturn, the recession, the changing politics, the loss of funding, the changing market. Have alternatives and contingencies ready. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – for example, don’t base your budget or economic forecasts on the price of oil alone.

Then, using a common Renaissance metaphor, Machiavelli compared fortune to a woman who had to be conquered by boldness. In other words, we must strive with all our being to overcome the vagaries of luck through bold action. But even boldness cannot make an unexpected or negative event go away, nor can it make an unfortunate stroke of luck into a fortunate one.

Machiavelli took his clues from Roman historians Sallust and Livy. As academic Georgios Vassiliades writes:

In Sallust, fortuna represents the circumstances determined by chance. It appears as a motor of decline, notably after the destruction of Carthage. However, the historian describes it as a power that could be controlled at the beginning of the decline process. Fortuna takes action as a consequence of the lack of virtus (the service of the res publica by execution of illustrious deeds). Nevertheless, once fortuna takes action, the absolute decline seems inevitable.

Even the best laid plans are subject to outside influences, to the fickle nature of chance. That’s why stockbrokers with years of experience and powerful software to help guide their choices, still make mistakes and cannot predict the mood of the market with precision. That’s why carefully crafted political campaigns go off the rails when an unexpected photograph of a drowned child appears on the front page.

That’s why good managers and good leaders plan in small, measurable, and achievable stages, not grandiose, sweeping objectives that more easily stumble and fall when the unexpected arises.

Had NASA’s sweeping plans for space exploration of the 1970s been realized, we would have colonies on the Moon and Mars by now. NASA couldn’t plan for recessions and the budget cuts they brought, or the volatile nature of political interest in space and the general dumbing down of the population. But today, planning one mission at a time, they can achieve their more modest goals.

Every festival, every outdoor event is at the whim of the weather. No amount of planning, no amount of boldness can make the rain stay away. And who among us has not been disappointed by a weather report that promised sunny skies but the rain came anyway?  Event budgets should have contingencies for bad weather, but also for slow ticket sales, problems with venues, unexpected crowds, software glitches and so on.

Part of the problem is the illusion of control. We hate to think we don’t control our lives, our environment, our activities. We like to believe we can control every aspect of them, and we become anxious or stressed when we cannot. This is the reason for the continuance of superstitions like good luck charms and horoscopes: they help us retain the illusion of control.

But control is not ours. It remains an illusion. Luck is not real nor can it be counted upon: it is as fickle as the weather. We cannot predict all the things that can happen to us, but as Murphy’s Law and its corollaries tell us, the least expected, the least desired things will happen when we least expect them.

Take driving, for example. Most people feel safer when they drive than when they fly because they have the illusion of control. It feels like we control the car, and we know we don’t control an airplane. But as professors Makridakis, Hogarth and Gaba say in their book, Dance with Chance, we don’t control the other drivers, the road conditions, the mechanical components of our and other cars, or the weather. Our sense of control is illusory, the authors tell us:

“One should pay special attention to what we can predict and what we can’t predict,” says Gaba, the Orpar Chaired Professor of Risk Management and Professor of Decision Sciences at INSEAD. “Underestimating uncertainty has very serious implications for risk management.”
…Chance and randomness play a significant role in business and in our lives. “The point is not that the world is hopeless and you shouldn’t do anything, it’s just that we should do a more careful assessment of what we can predict and what we can’t predict. And where we can’t predict then the effort and the resources are better spent on planning,” Gaba told INSEAD Knowledge.

Many more people die or are injured in car accidents than in airplane accidents. Yet we feel unrealistically safer in cars because we feel more in control in them. But it’s an illusion. And it costs lives.

Laws are like that, too.  We feel safer with laws because they suggest control, but they are another illusion as crime statistics tell us. No amount of paperwork will ever stop a criminal, but it feels better to have them. It seems like they control society, but in reality they only define punishment for those caught.

In the USA, gun advocates have a remarkably self-deceptive attitude towards guns, believing they give them control and thus offer more safety. Yet statistics easily disprove this, and show the USA has many times the number of gun deaths than other countries with more rigid gun control laws. And those statistics also show that the deaths and injuries are seldom related to criminal activities, but are more often the result of rage, emotional stress or simply a desire to hurt or kill another person.

But the gun advocates cling to their illusion of control even when it can be easily and irrevocably refuted. And their delusion costs many lives, too.

Locally, we can see the illusion of control at work in our own town council. Creating an egregiously authoritarian and bureaucratic code of conduct, for example, gives council the illusion of control. Since it lacks any serious enforcement or consequences, it is widely recognized as simply grandstanding. But as for control, it is just another delusion:  make-believe control to rationalize the posturing at the table.

Approving a budget with tax increases for residents and a pay raise for councillors was another way chance was ignored: it was approved without discussion of contingencies for inflation, the recession or bad employment figures. It ignored the impact of such a measure on the residents who can least afford additional expenses, ignored the reality of our stagnating economy and deflating fixed incomes while rewarding the politicians.

The deputy mayor’s proposed lobbyist registry is best described as a Stalinist delusion. Rather than control, it would merely limit the democratic right of voters to converse with their representatives. Efforts to control a non-existent local “lobby sector,” as residents clearly understand, is a transparent attempt to impinge on the business of a single person who is disliked by the political masters of a group on council. It would be deleterious for the rest of the community, but its advocates would enjoy the illusion of control.

The airy-fairy “strategic plan” (aka the woo-hoo wishlist) is another example: planning without contingencies and alternatives that deal with the realities of fortune and chance. Plus, being so general, it lacks measurable, defined objectives. It is intended to make council appear to be in control of the future of the town when in fact, lacking solid content, it does the opposite.

We all suffer from the illusion of control: it’s human nature. But we expect our politicians, our bureaucracies and those people whose decisions affect our lives – like financial advisers or municipal staff – to appreciate that they cannot predict with any certainty the future. And thus to make plans based on solid data, on measurable results and achievable goals, with appropriate contingencies for the unexpected.

Life is unpredictable. Those who plan for the sake of planning, who ignore the uncertainties in our lives, and make plans for political or personal gain, are  simply setting themselves up for failure. Unfortunately, the electorate suffers from their  failures, too.

* Virtu is, as Machiavelli said, in our nature, not always something we can control. He gave the example of Cesare Borgia who, despite his elan and zeal, still failed in the end. The third word Machiavelli stressed in planning and action is bureaucracy or institutions (ordini). But I’ll save that aspect for a post on the Municipal Machiavelli site.

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