Slow Motion Disasters

In a competitive global economy, organisations want to improve their execution. With manufacturing paradigms, organisations often choose to focus on improving the teams doing the work of delivery. Management literature is full of processes and approaches to improve project and other forms of delivery.  However, organisations often fail to diagnose that the causes of poor execution can also lie around the teams and processes of the work.

Story: A Slow Motion Disaster

Yesterday I decided casually to make some sourdough bread because I thought I needed to use my starter again. My starter wasn’t quite ready but I thought it was close enough and I would push on. I was distracted when starting because I had a bit going on in the kitchen and I accidentally added a little too much water. I tried to fix that upfront with more flour and I thought I had it under control. The excess water made the dough loose and sticky and hard to knead.  I convinced myself it would work. When I finally had some shape to the dough, I left it to prove. As the dough proved, I found that it became too sloppy again and I took some steps to fix it but mostly failed.  

Now deep in the process, I tried to push on shaping a loaf into a basket and leaving it to prove overnight. When I turned that loaf out of the basket I no longer had a loaf. I loaded a collapsing mound of sticky dough into the oven hoping against hope it might rise a little in the oven. What came out of the oven was a flat mess. The entire process was a slow motion disaster from the beginning.

The output – half flat and half rounded. Tastes fine.

There are many points in that process where my execution of the sourdough bread failed. However, the bigger challenges were not my techniques of delivery but in the environment and mindsets surrounding the work:

  • I didn’t have a clear reason to start
  • I didn’t get ready to execute properly
  • I didn’t focus exclusively on getting the job done well
  • I was distracted by other goals
  • I kept convincing myself it would work out OK if I kept going
  • I tried to make late changes to fix earlier errors
  • I didn’t have any help, other viewpoints or external checkpoints to make me review my decisions
  • I fell into the sunk cost fallacy trying to finish when I should have seen the failure and started again
  • I felt the need to get the job done, rather than the pressure to do the job well.

Avoiding Slow Motion Disasters

Having been involved in many corporate projects, I have seen organisations experience many of the issues of delivery that I experienced above. These issues shape the ability of the team doing the delivery to manage the project and to succeed.

Talents are variable. Circumstances change. Mistakes will happen. Obstacles will get in the way. The challenge of effective delivery is how to design work so that the job gets done despite the skills, mistakes and the obstacles. That takes organisations to think through the goals, the support and the environment of the project to help those doing the delivery to best adapt to what happens. Process and talent won’t get you there alone.

Effectively delivery demands an environment where:

  • Clear outcomes are set and the outcomes matter most to the team and the stakeholders of the work
  • Work is put into preparation and clearing the path for the team doing the delivery to focus on their work
  • Hard conversations are had and clear choices are made to start, stop or continue based on progress towards the outcomes
  • Accountabilities are clear and teams are supported with autonomy, trust and support to achieve their outcomes around and through challenges
  • Issues are addressed properly as they arise
  • The environment, support and collaboration enables the project to work through issues, to make the needed changes and to pursue the agreed outcomes that define success. 

Poor execution is not a mystery and it is not always the fault of the team’s at work on delivery. Often organisations need to take a hard look at the contributions of leadership, debate, decision making and collaboration in achieving effective execution. Execution is as much an artefact of the culture of an organisation as any other activity.

What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day. – Marcel Proust

The Madeleine

The madeleine is a delightful cake and an ideal inspiration for Proust’s great remembrance. Each madeleine depends on a series of transformations. There are many variations on the basic recipe but they all involve these changes to achieve the final result.

First sugar and eggs are beaten until pale and doubled in volume trapping air.

Then butter and flour are gently folded in to form an airy batter.

The batter rests. This is the step that takes confidence and daunts the beginner. However waiting to the right time thickens the batter to the consistency of a fine mousse.

Lastly the heat of the oven sets the batter into light & fragrant cakes.

The Transformations of Innovation

When we confront uncertainty and seek to create innovation whether in knowledge, a product or a business, we must follow similar series of transformations. We must create new ways forward ourselves by taking the uncertainty and transforming it.

We must add volume: if we don’t know then we need to seek, explore and learn. We need to add to our uncertainties before we can resolve them. We need more context and bigger systemic view to form new knowledge, new services or paths forward for a business.

We must create structure: when our expanded ideas begin to collapse under their weight and we doubt anything useful will come we need to start adding structure. Hypotheses, examples, principles, systems and process to support our new ways.

We need to use time as an ally: Not every new idea should be tested immediately. Many do. Some need to mature. Some need more work. Some need to meet the right circumstances. We need to use this time with confidence to enable our ideas to strengthen. This is not passivity. This is the work. We need to be ready to act when the ideas are ready to test.

We must test our innovation in fire: Testing is the only way to discover the flaws. We may fail and need to start again. The obstacles are the work. We might succeed and be able to continue testing all the while to ensure we remain on track to something better.

These transformations of innovation are not easy. These transform us as much as our innovation. They make us ready for success. They are the work we must do to surface great new ideas, products and businesses. We can’t skip steps. We can’t race ahead. We must just stay at our work of creating the future.

Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the natural laziness which deters us from every difficult enterprise, every work of importance, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and of my hopes for to-morrow, which let themselves be pondered over without effort or distress of mind.

And suddenly the memory returns… – Marcel Proust