Buttered Toast, Cats, and Risk Management

From the The Lazy Project Manager Blog
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Peter Taylor is the author of two best-selling books on ‘Productive Laziness’ – ‘The Lazy Winner’ and ‘The Lazy Project Manager’. In the last 4 years he has focused on writing and lecturing with over 200 presentations around the world in over 25 countries and has been described as ‘perhaps the most entertaining and inspiring speaker in the project management world today’. His mission is to teach as many people as possible that it is achievable to ‘work smarter and not harder’ and to still gain success in the battle of the work/life balance. More information can be found at www.thelazyprojectmanager.com – and through his free podcasts in iTunes.

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The buttered cat paradox is a common joke based on the tongue-in-cheek combination of two pieces of wisdom:

  • The first is that cats always land on their feet.
  • And the second is that buttered toast always lands buttered side down.

Now consider what would happen if the piece of buttered toast was attached, butter side up of course, to the back of a cat and then the cat was dropped from a large height. Some people suggest that the following will occur. As the cat falls towards the ground, it will slow down and start to rotate, eventually reaching a steady state of hovering a short distance from the ground while rotating at high speed as both the buttered side of the toast and the cat’s feet attempt to land on the ground.

This idea appeared on the British panel game QI, as well as talking about the idea, they also brought up other questions regarding the paradox. These included ‘Would it still work if you used margarine?’, ‘Would it still work if you used I Can't Believe It's Not Butter?’, and ‘What if the toast was covered in something that was not butter, but the cat thought it was butter?’, the idea being that it would act like a placebo.

The supposed phenomenon was first observed in the New York Monthly Magazine, which published the following poem in 1835:

I never had a slice of bread,

Particularly large and wide,

That did not fall upon the floor,

And always on the buttered side!

A study by the BBC's television series Q.E.D. found that when toast is thrown in the air, it lands butter-side down just one-half of the time (as would be predicted by chance)] However, several scientific studies have proven that when toast is dropped from a table it does fall butter-side down at least 62% of the time.

Why is this?

Well when toast falls out of a hand, it does so at an angle. The toast then rotates. Given that tables are usually between two to six feet there is enough time for the toast to rotate about one-half of a turn, and so it lands upside down relative to its original position. Since the original position is butter-side up then the toast lands butter-side down.

Now ignoring the paradox and concentrating on the simple piece of buttered toast dropping from your hand you could address this ‘risk’ in two ways. The first being that you rip out all of your kitchen fixings and tables and then re-install new ones that are at least 10 feet off the ground. This will result in any future toast drops have a 50/50 chance of turning sufficiently to end up buttered side up – a saving of 12% of cases using the Q.E.D. experiment results.

But this would be pretty costly and impractical.

Alternatively you could just be more careful when you eat buttered toast. Sit down. Don’t rush. Have the butter and toast on the table together. This would potentially deliver greater end results regarding a significant reduction in dropped buttered toast in the first instance and therefore the percentage of cases where the toast falls buttered side down would be irrelevant. Risk management needs to be relevant, appropriate and reasonable.

Besides, cats hate having toast stuck to their backs!

Posted on: May 31, 2015 02:04 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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unfortunately, i can't do QED! :(

Very interesting. I'll start eating buttered toast only on my 12º-office-windowsill!

Often, Project Managers show me their Risk Registers that contain CAUSE-RISK-EFFECT and severity (prob x imp). Rarely, these Risk Registers contain effective Response Plans. The most of time these RR describe brand new complex solutions to outsource their responsability to another future owner. Effective response should have: real risk owner; real actions with deadlines and real metric for monitoring results of actions, otherwise, only paper will be produced. Believing that the cat will land on their feet is not a real response action!

IMHO the following is the heart of risk management:

"therefore the percentage of cases where the toast falls buttered side down would be irrelevant."

In other words, change inputs if you want to change the outputs. For example, if the past three projects you ran had problems with getting requirements in time, try an iterative approach that takes the few requirements you understand today and works them while you develop more requirements. This is just an example. The point is that resigned acceptance of the problems you had in the past as "the way we do things" is acceptance of recurring issues (issues being the activation of risks).

Not that I want to start a butter battle, but wouldn't it be simpler, cheaper, and more effective to simply start eating your toast buttered side down? That way, if you drop it, it should land butter side up. I'm not sure you'd really want to eat the dropped toast anyway, but it would solve the butter-side-down landing issue.

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