Failure is an option
“You have a solution for everything” he said. We were sitting in my office, tinkering around a project that was so screwed it seemed impossible it will be ever finished. A never ending agony of the project manager, project owner, developer, designer – everyone. It was one of those projects that you don’t know why they managed to survive this long, why it was not already dumped and used as an example of what not to do.
Rewind a couple of years back and I’m at an all-hands meeting of a (now defunct) retail chain days before we start the reimplementation of a broken ERP that crippled the company for almost a year. Everyone, from the GM to the store managers say we should postpone the reimplementation because we’re not ready. Even the contractor advised to hold the reimplementation. “What if the system does not work on Monday when the stores should open?” they asked. “We’ll keep them closed until it does.” I replied.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks before the World Cup in Brazil. Major commitments have been done to rush an app to public without testing, with an expected rush of more than 10k users during a game. The commercials on national TV are already rolling. Nobody has a clue how will the orchestra play. Will the backend system do what it is supposed to do under load? Will the mobile app work on that obscure flavor of Android? Will Apple publish the iOS app in time for the opening match?
“You have a solution for everything” he said. I don’t. Of course I don’t.
In my years at various companies, from bottom to top, I’ve seen some good, bad and really bad decisions being made. But the number one is the “no decision” decision. You know the one where everyone pretends that by not looking at the problem, it would eventually disappear? That one.
Another good example is the “let’s try again” method. You do something and the result is not what you wanted. Then you repeat the exact same process and when the result is again something you didn’t want, you reenter the “let’s try again” mode. By exactly repeating our steps we expect the outcome to be different.
“No, I have a plan B” I replied.
When I first read the Business Model Canvas, the main point that was stuck in my head was the notion that removing parts of the business model is encouraged in order to test the model itself. The same principle, kinda, applies to the Chaos monkey principle from Netflix, where you intentionally break parts of your infrastructure just to make sure the remaining parts will adapt and respond in a predictable and expected way.
Therefore failure is an option.
The empowering possibility of building stuff only to test their resilience is by far the best mind shift when constructing a product, process, plan or business. Asking the “what if” question opens doors to difficult and painful answers, but at the same time points to areas that more often than not become competitive advantages. All the tools to do so are available, but the inertial laziness of entrepreneurs stands in the way of using those tools. Not because the questions get repetitive, but because those questions are really hard.
When the questions become hard, a natural ignorance kicks in often resulting in the “no decision” decision. Everything will turn out fine. And it rarely does.
I wrote about embracing experiments as expected, measurable failure that produces more usable results than education or training. I’ve seen way too many examples of companies and managers pushing their head in the sand when the questions get hard. Failure is a scary thing, it puts you in the spotlight, raising even more questions and doubts. It slowly eats you out, bit by bit, exposing even more wounds and rocking the boat harder. Failure gets under your skin. It makes you doubt yourself. It makes you lose the feeling of control.
Losing the feeling of control is the ultimate fear factor. Running a business you do not control. That sounds scary, let alone being completely crazy when it happens. So in order to tackle that factor, you deconstruct it to bits and prepare yourself for the “what if” event. What if my lead programmer leaves? What if my main supplier rises prices? What if my customers don’t want to pay for my product?
While assessing startups in the last couple of years, I always used the “what if” bombshell not to find out really “what if”, but how would the authors react and respond. In the vast majority of cases, their reply was appalling and immediately triggered the gut feeling of a “no-go” because when things go bad, you want to know who you’re drowning with. The reasons and a wider overview about that phenomena is available here.
Assumptions are the worst enemy of all reasonable thinking. Decisions based on assumptions are equal to gambling. And regardless of what you tell yourself, in the vast majority of cases when you’re gambling, you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re just waiting to be proven wrong.