Thinking the impossible? Or wishing for the impossible?

At EuroSTAR 2013 in Gothenburg there was a striking contrast between messages coming out of tutorials that were taking place at the same time.

Ian Rowland was talking about how we can do amazing things by “thinking the impossible”. Meanwhile, along the corridor I was giving out a much more mundane and downbeat message in my tutorial about how testers can work constructively with auditors.

I was talking about how auditors are allergic to statements of brainless optimism. Plans should be based on evidence that they are achievable, not on wishful thinking that defies the evidence.

You might think Ian was contradicting me, but I was entirely happy with his message when he repeated it in a later keynote.failure is not an option

In my tutorial I referred to a tweet from James Bach that made the telling point that “people who say failure is not an option are in fact selecting the failure option: by driving truth away”.

brainless optimism slideI backed that up with a slide showing a tiresome and glib illustration of a little man boldly turning “impossible” into “possible”, with two strokes of a pen. That sort of unthinking positivity really riles me.

The unthinking “can do” spirit

As an auditor I regularly reviewed project plans and frequently they were implausibly optimistic. We were rarely in a position to block such plans. It wasn’t our place to do so. That was a decision for operational and IT management. We would comment, but ultimately management was responsible for the decision to proceed and for the consequences.

Only once was I a direct stakeholder. I insisted that a project should be replanned. The intention was to carry out user testing, user training and then start a phased roll-out during the six week English school summer holidays. That’s when every office was running with reduced staff levels. Initially I was rather unpopular, but the project team were quietly relieved once the responsibility was taken out of their hands. They’d been under unreasonable pressure to go live in September. It was never going to happen.

In that case I was able to defend the project team, but more often I saw the damaging effect on staff who were committed to unrealistic, ludicrously optimistic timescales.

I once interviewed a Chief Technology Officer, who candidly admitted that the culture of the company was that it was far better to say “Yes we can” and then emerge from the project sweaty, exhausted and hopelessly late than it was to say at the start how long it would actually take. He said the users were never prepared to accept the truth up front.

I remember another project whose schedule required a vital user expert to be available for 10 days in November. She already had two weeks holiday booked, and was committed to 20 days working for another project, all in November, a total of 40 working days. Of course both projects were business critical, with fixed target dates that had been dumped on them by senior management. Both projects were late – of course.

If auditors are involved early on in the planning of projects they can sniff out such problems, or force them to be confronted. Sometimes projects are well aware of problems that will stop them hitting their targets but they are scared to flag them up. The problem is kicked into the long grass in the hope that dealing with an urgent problem further down the line will be less damaging than getting a reputation for being negative by complaining early on.

That fear might seem irrational, even bizarre, but it is entirely justifiable. I reviewed a development that had had serious problems and was very late. The development team lead had said the schedule was unrealistic given the budget and available staff. She was removed from her role. Her replacement said she could do it. Eventually the development work was completed in about the time the original team lead had predicted. The successor was praised for her commitment, whereas the original team lead was judged to lack the right attitude. Her career was blighted, and she was deeply disillusioned when I interviewed her.

Be lucky! That’s an order!

Usually when senior management overdoses on the gung ho spirit and signs up to the John Wayne school of inspirational leadership the result isn’t “thinking the impossible”. The result is an order to the troops to be lucky – freakishly lucky. This isn’t thinking the impossible. It’s thinking the impossible will happen if we switch off our brains and treat the troops like disposable cannon fodder.

If the results of unthinking, high volume managerial optimism have been appalling in the past then the evidence is that they will be appalling in the future. There has to be a reason to assume things will get better, and brainless optimism provides remarkably poor evidence.

If your experience of following standards, inappropriate “best practices” and excessively prescriptive processes has been dismal then you won’t get better results in future from sheer optimism, force of will and a refusal to acknowledge the truth.

Insistence on trying to do the wrong things better and faster is not only irrational, it is a deep insult to the people whose working lives are being made miserable. If you have experienced persistent failure and insist on continuing to work in the same way then the clear implication is that failure is the fault of the people, the very people who ensured anything worthwhile was ever delivered.

Ian Rowland had a marvellous and inspirational message. Sadly it’s a message that can prove disastrous if it’s picked up by the sort of managers who regard thinking and reflection as a frivolous waste of time. Be inspired by Ian’s message. Just be very careful who you share it with! Yes, thinking the impossible is wonderful. But that really does require thinking, not wishing!

3 thoughts on “Thinking the impossible? Or wishing for the impossible?

  1. Pingback: Five Blogs – 20 November 2013 | 5blogs

  2. Pingback: Testing Bits – 11/17/13 – 11/23/13 | Testing Curator Blog

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