Every success brings us new obstacles that we might or might not overcome. I previously discussed the idea that progress is not an uninterrupted upward path, but rather a forward and backward motion fraught with failure. Now I'll discuss how I first came face-to-face with the corresponding principle: Failure is rarely absolute. Indeed, most failures display the opposite of the adage one step forward, two steps back.
The client, a reasonably-sized dot-com with good funding and a possible market, hired my company to do operational assessments. I played an advisory role on the project; the project manager and one of the senior operations analysts performed most of the work. The analyst brought along a team of "shadows," a group of juniors who couldn't find other gainful assignments and, so, were assigned to the client at no cost.
Two months in, the project team presented their initial findings. Although the business model teetered on the brink of disaster, the infrastructure resembled roadkill, and the Web service slipped its delivery date by over a year, the team felt that progress had been made. Against this overwhelming tide of destruction, the team clung to the successes: Better monitoring pointed to the possibility of building a better infrastructure, and the funding was renewed for another year. With luck, the new development model would sort through the problems in the Web service.
The seduction of progress
In sober hindsight, the industry is inclined to blame this kind of thinking on "the Internet bubble." We talk wisely about hysteria and corporate responsibility. The more historically-inclined of us mention the Dutch tulip market as an example of how humans have engaged in the same kinds of speculative behavior in the past. (In the 1620s and 1630s, in Holland, tulip bulbs—yes, the flower kind—were sold for more than the annual income of a wealthy merchant. There was a massive futures market and people speculated about the value of the bulbs—until the day the futures market collapsed and people lost everything...except their rather nice flower collections.)
At the time, though, the project team's suicidal optimism bothered me. Optimism is all well and good. Confidence in our own ability to turn things around often forms the only bulwark against madness when it's 2:00 A.M. and the systems are down. But willfully discarding the evidence that the client was headed for complete disaster? That kind of self-delusion struck me as more than just usual business in the bubble. It bordered on unethical and, potentially, legally negligent. At the same time, I felt the desire to see everything as going well. We had indeed made a great deal of progress for our client.
After the team left, I closed the conference room door. Sitting there, surrounded by documents, white-board diagrams, and post-it notes on the walls, I was determined to understand not only what was happening, but why. Why was I emotionally unable to accept that this client and the projects attached to it would collapse?
Optimism and focus
I felt the key lay in the same process by which we create disasters out of successes: Just as my previous project manager dragged himself through the mud because of our project, my current team avoided thinking about the mud by focusing on the successes. This allowed us to feel like we accomplished something on the brink of disaster.
Just as I had done with the previous "failures," I decided to analyze the current "successes" to see what we really accomplished. To do that, I drew up a list with the project's successes on one side and the client's known problems on the other. Then I compared the two, leading to the following results.
- Better monitoring pointed to the possibility of building a better infrastructure. While true in an absolute sense, would reducing the broadcast traffic on the network really change the fact that the client did not have a product? Did getting their database backup problems ironed out populate their database with paying customers?
- The funding was renewed for another year. Our little bits of progress convinced someone to throw more money down the hole. Yet the client's business plan did not project becoming profitable. Ever.
- A new development model would sort through the problems in the Web service. This was their third development model and their fourth time trying to generate something. Maybe, just maybe, there was a deeper issue. But the change made everyone, including me, feel that we could somehow pull it off.
Taken in and of themselves, each of the three items above was, in fact, progress. This progress occurred despite the general failure. The project team was not delusional. They were making a difference. They just could not make enough of a difference, or make it fast enough, to turn things around. For every step forward they took, the client took two steps back as a business.
Same pattern, different day
Recently, I had lunch with a client of mine. He works as an IT manager, specializing in leadership and turning around failing teams. His current assignment put him face-to-face with yet another team that could not meet its client needs or business goals.
Over the last few months, we had talked about the current team. Sometimes he seemed elated, convinced he had finally reached them. On other occasions, he felt that the team needed a complete revamp. After all, the current hiring environment certainly makes it possible to completely replace a team in short order.
In talking with him, I felt the same tug I experienced years before in that conference room. Every once in a while, the team "got it." They worked hard. These little gems of progress pointed to the possibility of success. If we could somehow build on them, perhaps the team could make the leap into the new leadership environment.
Unfortunately, the progress they demonstrated had nothing to do with the core issues. His team did not trust him. They did not want to work with their clients. They refused to address the complex system they built to avoid having to deal with anyone outside their team. Unless my friend could somehow change the individual team members' personalities, no amount of occasional progress could solve the problem.
Although I was tempted to dismiss these cases as "wearing rose-colored glasses," the actors in both moved forward in good faith. They saw and reported progress. That this progress failed to address their core issues had little to do with the project work. By staying focused on that work, they fell into the most seductive of traps: believing that two steps back and one step forward equals success.