The Anna Karenina Principle

A while back I finished up Jared Diamonds Guns, Germs and Steel.  A really great read.

In one of the chapters, he opens with a quote from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

He was illustrating a principle to do with the domestication of animals – throughout history, successful domestication relied more on the absence of any number of negative traits than the presence of positive ones.  Essentially, all domesticated animals were domesticated in the same way – like all happy families are alike.

You can read the wikipedia article on this here.  It’s a little unfinished but does give some history of similar principals (all the way back to Aristotle).

The thing I found fascinating about this principal when I first read about it in Guns, Germs and Steel was that it challenges our accepted ways of viewing a problem.  In business, we’re often asked to find out the ‘key reason’, the ‘driver’, the ‘thing we really need to win at’ in order to succeed.  But what if it simply doesn’t exist?  What if there isn’t any one key ‘thing’ we need to do?  Instead, there are many (possibly smaller) things we need to ensure we avoid.

This is a different mindset to solving a problem.  It doesn’t take away the importance of doing the right things correctly, it simply says those might not be enough.

This idea hit me the other day when I was talking to someone in the restaurant business.  They were trying to figure out what made a ‘great dining experience’.  They were looking at all the components – service, meal, atmosphere, etc.  Trying to figure out where to concentrate resource to really ‘wow’ the customer!

After thinking about it for a bit, it occurred to me that all great dining experiences are alike, while all bad ones are generally bad in their own way.

A great dining experience has a great meal, good service, good atmosphere, good company, good value.  You need all of these.  But you could have all of these and your hot drink might be cold.  Or the bathrooms could be dirty.  Or your order was wrong.  It only takes one or two small things to turn that dining experience bad.  MORE service, BETTER food, MORE atmosphere doesn’t make up for it.

Sometimes it’s just about removing obstacles.  There is no magic bullet.



One Response to “The Anna Karenina Principle”

  1. September 8, 2014 at 12:27 am #

    Anna Karenina is one of the most heartbreaking books I’ve ever read. I’ll be hsoent and admit that I did not reread it to take part in this discussion but I’ve read it twice in the past and remember it well.Anna Karenina is an excellent novel but my gosh does it depress me! What really tears me up is Anna’s relationship with Vronsky. I don’t know if this will make sense but it’s that inevitable doom of many (all?) relationships… in the beginning Vronsky is incredibly passionate, ready to sully his name and give up anything to be with Anna even though it is against his family’s wishes and the social norms of late 19th century Russia. But by the end he has become bored with her. The excitement is gone and all that’s left for Vronsky is this dull feeling of responsibility towards Anna because he is the one that ruined her (or encouraged her to ruin herself). Anna can sense that his feelings towards her have changed and that she is now more of a burden than an indispensable part of Vronsky’s existence. I think that that creeping feeling inside Anna and the hopelessness and powerlessness that she felt because of it is why she does what she does in the end.I think that a lot of people are likely to immediately take offense and disagree with Anna’s choices and actions. She had a son who she claims over and over again to love so dearly – why does she just run off with the first dashing young man to make an overture towards her? I think what we should consider before judging her is the social constraints that a woman in her position would be dealing with at this time. Anna didn’t get to choose her husband. She probably didn’t get to choose anything for herself besides maybe her dresses. Anna was a free spirit who was full of passion and wanted to experience life but she was forced to obey the strict decorum and social mores of Russia during the Victorian Era. That would be suffocating for any woman! Her choices weren’t always rational but when I try to put myself in her place and try to imagine how overwhelming it must have been to feel all of those pressures constraining your every thought and action… who knows what any of us would do in her place.I’m going to stop myself before I write an entire essay here! How did you like the movie?