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"Airplanes fail constantly, but usually fail less than they compensate for their failures,
and thereby succeed …"

The axiom that failure starts with the first step probably serves as the oldest comment ever made about project work. Since the beginning, successions of clever practitioners have proposed methods for ensuring that their project will not repeat this most ancient of axioms, each without success. I, too, in my turn, took up with one, then another, and then yet another philosopher promising to deliver the antidote for this feature of project work. I now believe that the problem implied by this timeless insight fails to qualify as a problem at all. I consider it a feature, and as such, should properly remain unsolvable. Solutions belong to problems, not features.

I don't mean to imply that I've grown cynical from following false prophets
, though I've followed enough of them to fully justify thirteen different kinds of cynicism. Nor to I intent to imply that a certain wisdom has overtaken me such that I find myself immune to this ancient insight. I firmly believe that failure still starts with whatever first step anyone takes toward their objective. Different steps might well produce different failures, but no step, no matter how cautious or seemingly learned or prescient will guide any explorer anywhere but wrong. No tragedy need result from this wrong-footedness. One can always choose again, at least theoretically. Whether or not one might recognize an opportunity to choose again complicates the consideration, of course. Whether or not one might choose more wisely the second or third, or 'N'th time might be beside the point, because each new beginning qualifies as at least a newish beginning, subject to the same apparently inexorable law of projects: That first step yields failure. So does the next one.

The almost as old axiom equating project success with accurately predicting the outcome might carry most of the blame for the alarmingly stabile failure rate of projects over time. Often, the first formal act of a project involves publicly declaring how much the effort will cost and how long it will take, two values absolutely unassessable at the beginning. Certainly, one might create vague projections, but most of the community surrounding the effort will interpret these guesses as more than they could possibly be, and later hold the hapless estimator accountable for the experienced failure. It might be impossible for any group, no matter how conditioned to understand ambiguity, to perceive projections as anything less than promises. Go ahead. You, too, can talk until you're blue in the face and learn for yourself that there's no argument capable of turning this terrible presumption.

Over time, a project practitioner—manager, coordinator, even contributor—might become able to hold the fragile construction lightly enough to avoid completely crushing it. Most won't. They will speak ill of those who fail to feel more desperate to succeed than sanguine with failure. They will do almost anything to unseat you with someone who still believes that they've mastered the method for avoiding even minor catastrophe. They will try hard to send you to the showers the first time conditions try to correct your (and their) initial misconceptions. The larger the organization, the more they seem to pursue serial solutions to what couldn't really qualify as a problem in the first place. That first step yields failure.

For the best and the brightest, perhaps the demographic least experienced in failing, project work can feel like one disqualification followed by another, then another; for they might have managed to make it clear through grad school without failing at anything, or so their vitaes suggest. Send those recruits to the executive floor, for they might be the least well-suited to cope with the serial failure project work produces. Success might well lurk within any wrong-footed endeavor, but not the success so confidently projected at the beginning, especially if that confidence was induced by the failure phobic ninnies funding the effort, who coerced the trumped up confidence to compensate for their own lack of understanding and/or courage.

I think of failure as project gravity. It tugs at every molecule of every project all the time. There's no escaping it, though there might be coping strategies capable of limiting its potential for catastrophic influence. Aeronautical engineers no longer expend effort seeking to solve the gravity problem. Every airplane you've ever ridden in was subject to the same gravity my bedroom slipper experiences. Few airplanes fail to adequately compensate for that gravity any more. Any hour spent in severe turbulence, though, might remind anyone that airplanes continue to experience failure, even serial failure, in the attempt to provide safe and comfortable flights. As I relearn again every flight, comfort comes second in priority to safety. The plane might utterly fail to comfortably compensate for that shrieking side wind, but so far, all the ones I've booked passage on, successfully provided a safe passage for me.

The Gravity Problem turns out to not be that serious of a problem for those prepared to adequately cope with its presence. I believe that the primary difficulty still facing projects amounts to a common delusion, that some method might exist somewhere to utterly solve their own instance of The Gravity Problem. Generations of wizards have composed libraries filled with scrupulous methods, none of which seem to provide comfortable, let alone safe, passage for those booking passage on any project. Airplanes fail constantly, but usually fail less than they compensate for their failures, and thereby succeed, though ask for no testimonials from those green-faced folks filing off that terrifyingly turbulent flight from Pittsburgh.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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