Decide To Tackle The Impossible

Decide To Tackle The ImpossibleDoing the impossible doesn’t take a long time, starting does. More precisely, what takes a long time is getting ready to start. Getting ready is the gating item. So what’s in the way?

The big deal about starting is other people will see you do it and they’ll judge you. Your brain tells stories about how people will think you’re silly or incompetent for trying the outrageous. It takes a long time to build the courage to start. But where starting is scary, getting ready is safe and comfortable. Getting ready is done in the head – it’s a private process. And because you do it in your head, you can do it without being judged, and you can do it for as long as you like. And you can take comfort in getting ready because you rationalize you’re advancing the ball with your thinking. (Hey, at least you’re thinking about it.) But the real reason for staying in the getting ready domain is starting the fear around being judged for starting.

After you finally mustered the courage to start, you’ll get welcomed with all sorts of well-intentioned, ill-informed criticism. The first one We tried that before, and it didn’t work. Thing is, it was so long ago no one remembers what was actually tried. Also, no one remembers how many approaches were tried, and even fewer know why it didn’t work. But, everyone’s adamant it won’t work because it didn’t work. Your response That was a long time ago, and things have changed since then. There are new technologies to try, new materials that may work, new experimental methods, and new analytical methods to inform the work.

Now that you dismissed the we-already-tried-that’s, the resource police will show up at your door. They’ll say That’s a huge project and it will consume all our resources. You can’t do that. Your response Well, I’m not eating the whole enchilada, I only taking the right first bite. And for that, I don’t need any extra resources. You see, my friends and I really want to do this and we pooled our resources and narrowly defined the first bite. So, as far as resources, I’m all set.

Now the alignment officers will find you. They’ll say Your off-topic mission impossible will confuse and distract our organization and we can’t have that. You know there’s no place for passion and excitement around here. Can you imagine engineers running around doing things that could disrupt our decrepit business model? We’ll no longer have control, and we don’t like that. Please stop. Your response Let’s set up a meeting with the CEO who’s on the hook to create new businesses, and you can deliver that message face-to-face. You want me to set up the meeting?

Lastly, the don’t-rock-the-boaters will nip at your heels. They’ll say - Things are going pretty well. Did you hear we’re laying off fewer people this quarter? And, we’re losing less money this quarter. Things are looking up. And here you are trying something new, and scaring everyone half to death. You’ve got to stop that nonsense. Your response –Though it may be scary, I have a hunch this crazy stuff could create a whole new business and help secure the company’s future. And I have kids going to college in a couple years, and the company’s future is important to me.

When doing the impossible, the technical part is the easy part. Once you decide to try, what you thought impossible comes quickly. What’s difficult is the people part. Doing the impossible is unpredictable, and it cuts across grain of our culture of predictability. For years it’s been well defined projects with guaranteed profits and completion dates etched in stone. And after years of predictability injections people become the antibodies that reject the very work the company needs – the work that delivers the impossible.

No kidding – once you start the impossible, your organization will make it difficult for you. But, that’s nothing compared to the difficulty of getting ready because in that phase, you must overcome the most powerful, sly, dangerous critic of all – yourself.

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Mike ShipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior.  He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.

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