Friday, November 27, 2009

Interlude Two: Y2K and the Fuzzy Nature of Success

Before the start of the millennium the world was abuzz with concern, as it held its collective breath fearing that the much touted Y2K bug would usher in an end to civilization.  Airplanes could fall from the sky, Nuclear Plants could melt, and financial assets could disappear.
Mind you, the so-called “Millennium Bug” was not actually a bug. Rather, it was a side effect of legacy applications written during a time when the cost to store one byte of data was about ten million times higher than it is today.  Storing only the last two digits of the year did in fact save significant money during those early days of super-expensive disk storage. The real issue was that legacy applications over-extended their welcome, as they are prone to do, and the need to prevent a devastating impact from Y2K became a critical imperative[1]
With a total worldwide estimated expense of $200B, the industry successfully confronted both the hype and the challenge of this problem. In the end, the only explosions seen were from the fireworks of the beautiful millennial ceremonies held around the world. January 1, 2000 came and went with barely a hiccup.
Sadly, there soon emerged the narrative that IT people had duped everyone with their “Y2K fear-mongering” and that the whole effort had been a waste of money. During a CNN interview, a congressman opposing a new budget request stated, “Let’s not have another Y2K project where we spent so much money on it and then . . . nothing happened anyway!”
All this got me thinking about the fuzzy nature of success. For the most part, failure is easy to recognize even if politicians and some Wall Street insiders are masters at concealing it (mortgage derivatives anyone?). Success, on the other hand, is often muffled or belittled.  Even clearly successful endeavors such as the moon landing had its share of detractors: “The project was over-budget”, “Astronauts died in the process”, “The whole mission was a fool’s-errand”, “That money could have been used to solve world-hunger”, “The whole thing was a hoax”, et cetera, et cetera. 
Yes, we frequently hear motivational arguments about how failure can be a good thing, how we can learn from it, and how we should all be allowed to fail, and so on, and so forth.  Truth be told, no one possessing any degree of rationality seeks to fail, and if you fail one too many times, chances are that you will suffer the consequences.  Setting all philosophizing side, I think we can all agree that success is preferable to failure.
But what exactly constitutes success?
A baseball batter is deemed wildly successful when he is able to hit the ball 40% of the time. What is the right percentage for a transformation project? Certainly not 40%.  Neither is 100%. A bigger problem is the expectation of perfection. One of my assigned goals in a previous job was to make sure that all technology worked well all of the time—this on a shoestring budget and limited resources to boot.  Yet, in the real world, a project that succeeds too well in all of its dimensions is either a chimera or something that was not ambitious enough to begin with.
Alas, I have witnessed projects that delivered and even exceeded their key goals, but because they failed to meet one hundred percent of the original expectations, they ended up being perceived as failures. Projects that truly set out to accomplish something must be measured against their key deliverables, even if they might miss a few non-essential objectives.  This is especially true with large and complex transformation initiatives.
As far as that congressman was concerned, the Y2K intervention was a failure because he looked only at the cost involved and did not understand that “nothing bad should happen” was actually the criteria for success. The hundreds of billions of dollars spent to avert the Y2K bug was money well spent, precisely because, in the end, “nothing happened”. The Y2K catastrophe was avoided; plus there’s anecdotal evidence that the Y2K remediation efforts also spear-headed beneficial transformation makeovers.
Many books have been written about failure but not many about success.  In my experience, success (actual or imagined) can take one of the following forms:
·         Bombastic.  When Charles Lindbergh landed in France after his solo trans-Atlantic flight, the feat was celebrated by a million people in Paris and between four and five million people when he paraded in New York City.
·         Celebrated. Naturally this is the kind of success that most of us hope for after a project is completed.
·         Contented.  Not all successes have to be celebrated. In fact, it is rather annoying when someone constantly highlights his or her accomplishments.  Contented success that takes place day by day has the value of making you feel inwardly warm and cozy knowing you have done your job right.
·         Unappreciated. As with Y2K, I have also seen projects deprived of recognition simply because they provided success without drama. It is ironic that projects that first fail and then eventually get fixed (usually at added expense and time) are the ones that tend to get credited and celebrated the most (e.g. Hubble Space Telescope). However, projects that deliver their promise right off the bat; especially when the promise is one of risk aversion tend to receive little or no recognition. 
·         Fake. Not real success, but I added it to this list for completeness sake. We all remember that landing on an aircraft carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” banner, and who actually thinks the Kardashians are talented?
Yes, no one wants to be unappreciated, but hopefully you will not make claims for fake successes. It is fine to let everyone know of your actual accomplishments, but do so in a manner that does not cross the bragging line. To achieve success worthy of celebration, it is best is to be objective about the essential metrics right from the start.  When creating a new project plan, make sure to include a Success Criteria section were you list the criteria that must be met in order to qualify it for accolades. You may need to educate everyone on the paradigm that while the success criteria does include the deliverables you and your sponsors deem mandatory, it does not necessarily reflect the totality of desired deliverables.  After all, Kennedy’s goal for the Moon Shot was a very simple "land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade”.  While the original five billion dollar budget was easily exceeded, and failures occurred along the way, the moon landing mission was indeed a Bombastic success.
If the objective of a project is to deliver something tangible, you can at the very least make a compelling case for its success by showing the working deliverable. However, success will be more difficult to define for those projects developed to avoid risks. In these cases your criteria will be phrased around the concept of “avoidance”, and since “avoidance” is fairly open-ended (e.g. “Avoid hackers breaking into our Credit Card Data Base”), you will need to refine the parameters. For instance: How long will you keep the data safe?  At what cost? What specific kinds of intrusion will be prevented? The more precise and objective you are with metrics, the better.
True success should always be assessed fairly and realistically and then celebrated. It’s worth remembering that lack of recognition is one of the main reasons seasoned professionals search for greener pastures. Every accomplishment should be humbly recognized and used as a foundation for the next step up the ladder.  And for every successful step we should give contented thanks.
With that, I wish you all a very successful 2015!

[1] If moving from the year 1999 to the year 2000 was tough, can you imagine the pain the Chinese had to undergo to move from the year of the Rabbit to the year of the Dragon? (No more millennium jokes, I promise)