Truth is stranger than fiction. Actual stories are more exciting than imagined narratives.

Until recently, I had never heard of or even imagined that a river would change its direction after they built a bridge on it. Here is what happened.

In Honduras, Central America, the government built a new bridge over the river Choluteca to connect it to a new bypass road. For a country known for its fiery hurricanes, they should build a bridge in such a way that it should withstand Nature’s fury.

And they did it. A Japanese firm built the bridge with the latest technology available. The construction began in 1996 and ended in 1998.

After a few months, Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras and deposited 75 inches of rain in four days, equivalent to what they received in six months.

The river Choluteca flooded the country. Over 7000 people lost their lives. The hurricane damaged or destroyed most of the bridges except one. The new Choluteca Bridge remained unaffected. It withstood the hurricane’s fury.

But there was a ‘small’ problem.

The river changed course. It formed a new channel. It no longer flowed beneath the bridge. The river flowed beside the bridge.

The Choluteca Bridge became a bridge to nowhere.

Bridge before the storm

Choluteca Bridge before the storm

Bridge after the storm

Choluteca Bridge after the storm

The Choluteca Bridge has become a metaphor for many lessons spanning our personal, business, and technological lives.

  • Nature functions by its own rules and self-organizing principles, some of which remain unknown to us. We think we can tame Nature, but it’s unpredictability and ‘unknown unknowns’ spring nasty surprises when we least expect them, like a river changing its course.
  • The Choluteca River caused a massive disruption by changing its course. A bridge built at an enormous cost became a worthless white elephant. In the business world, such disruptions destabilize existing players who remained complacent about their future.
  • Even the best product may end up without a market.
  • Negotiating risk and uncertainty continues to challenge our collective intelligence. We can never provide for random events, however meticulously we may plan and design solutions. The Japanese bridge engineers focussed on making the structure robust enough to withstand the fury of hurricanes. They never expected the river to change its course.
  • Sometimes we experience the inversion of the problem-solution matrix when the solution itself turns into a problem. The Honduras government thought the new bridge solved the problem of crossing the Choluteca River. The solution not only became redundant, it itself turned into an additional problem of an enormous investment in an infrastructure that failed to achieve its purpose.
  • The sudden alteration in the river’s course reinforced the chronic uncertainty of life. Change is the only constant in life. Like the river, we may have to change course in our lives. Adaptability is the key to survival and resilience.
  • We must rethink our blind faith in technology to fix all our problems. Sure, technology has solved innumerable problems. But technology has to have a narrow focus to achieve its purpose. It cannot have an expansive view to consider unexpected glitches and seemingly improbable and extraordinary exigencies.

What happened to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’? In 2003, they reconnected the bridge to the highway.

To sum up

The Choluteca Bridge is a metaphor for change in the face of unpredictable occurrences. The hurricane was the disrupter. The river that carved an alternative route for itself represented the norms of the alternative world. And the bridge standing for the society which had to adapt to the new order.

Ack: Mukundarajan V N

Coaching Questions

  • How are we adapting to the great disruptor our professional and personal worlds have been thrown?
  • How can we ensure that the solutions we are now providing are also adaptable to future landscapes and changing markets?
  • How can we anticipate and stay mindful so that we surf the waves of change, and not be overwhelmed by them?