Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Sacred Outcome

It's the end of the year, which means that, at work, we've already spent the last month or two talking about what we want to do next year.  We have big plans: bringing on a batch of jumbo clients, moving into a new building, advancing our products, and making our organization faster and more nimble than it's ever been (we're going to have to, if we want to bring on all those clients).  As we've talked about all of these big ideas, we've also talked about what might keep us from achieving those goals.  Over and over, we come to the same conclusion: we can't keep doing what we've done before, or we won't make it.  My company's been in business for over 25 years, and our software division has been around for 6 years.  In technology time, that's like 30 years when you look at how much has changed, and how some decisions we made 5 years ago look like the crazed ramblings of a drunken lunatic when we look at them now.  More than once, I've heard one of my engineers say, "What idiot wrote this feature? Oh, wait, that was me."

Change is continuous in our business, but this year the need is greater than usual.  We need to get serious about this if we're going to succeed.  So we came up with a phrase to guide us:

Nothing is sacred except the outcome.

If we're going to change, really change, the way we do business, we have to let go of everything that got us here.  We can't hold onto that great idea that solved a big problem last summer, nor the "best practices" that took years to develop, nor even the new process that we finally finished polishing last month.  If any of these things stand in the way of our goals, they have to go.  If they still make sense in the new world, then they can stay.  If they have no bearing on the new solution but still have value of their own, then they don't need to be touched; we have bigger fish to fry.  But if these things become and obstacle, then they'll be demolished.  Even the best idea grows old and tired over time.

This is a hard concept to embrace.  We talk about building a culture of continuous improvement, and we even practice it in small ways, but we still become attached to our ideas, our way of doing things, over time.  I'm fine with tweaking your development process every few weeks, but keep your hands off of my code branching strategy!  Do you know how many whiteboards I had to fill before everyone agreed to that?  And what about your support ticket management?  Maybe we should look at that before we get all handsy with another person's source code archive.

Too often, I've had conversations like this:

Me: So why do we do it that way?

Engineer: Well, three years ago, there was this problem, and after we worked really hard we came up with this solution.  We've been doing it that way ever since.

Me: Has anything changed since then?

Engineer: As far as I know, we're all still living in a uni-directional time flow, so yes, some things have changed.

Me: Then why are you thinking like it's still three years ago?

A lot of my engineers are smart-asses.  But they're smart smart-asses, which is why I like them.

When I solve a problem, I want it to stay solved.  That's why I put so much energy into coming up with the best answer in the first place.  That tendency to push beyond an answer to the best answer has annoyed a lot of people in my life, from my parents and teachers on to my colleagues and bosses, but it's also gotten me to where I am.  I don't settle for kicking the problem down the road.  I want that problem dead.  I want its family dead, I want its house burned to the ground, I never want to hear about it or its little problematic friends again.  That takes a lot of work.  This is great when I first come up with a solution, but what about when circumstances change?  When the context of the problem no longer applies, what then?  That solution took a lot of work, but now it no longer fits.  What was a great answer to a problem is now nothing more than baggage.  As difficult as it is, I have to let it go.  We have to let it go.  We have to leave the past effort behind, grateful for the value it provided, but not clinging to it past its useful life.

We all have sacred things in our lives, whether at work or otherwise, that were purchased at a great price, whether measured in dollars or hours.  These things might have brought us great success in the past, or they might have just been so difficult to attain that we can't imagine letting them go now.  But too often, the sacred object becomes the one thing that holds us back from success, from moving on to the next goal.  When we say, "I'll change anything except for that," we wall off entire areas of our lives, forcing us to take lengthy detours to achieve our goals, if in fact we can attain them at all.  The great prize becomes a weight around our neck, dragging us down even as we seek to climb higher.

What do you want to achieve in your life?  What "sacred things" are keeping you from doing it?  Maybe it's time to shift the focus from what has come before to what is yet to come.  Let's leave behind those entangling threads, recognizing that last year's efforts are sunk cost, not to be counted in our future plans, and let's reach for new things.  Let's feel free to change, to strike out anew, and to achieve that sacred goal.

Nothing is sacred except the outcome.