28 August 2023

What could go wrong?


I start every new project, whether it’s repairing a toilet, designing a four-bedroom house or starting a novel, flush with optimism.  This time, I think, everything’s going to go smoothly and efficiently.  A relentless march from beginning to end with nary a hiccup.  Because, after all, I’d done all these things before and I have the positive results to show for it.

Yet this never happens.  A better way to describe my projects is a series of screwups and miscalculations, strung together by intermittent moments of good luck, and relentless revision.  In retrospect, the degree of difficulty for each project is inversely  proportionate to my expectations for smooth sailing. 

I think in this, I’ve inherited the same delusional thinking that infects entrepreneurs, research scientists and treasure hunters.  We’re excellent at imagining successful outcomes, and blind to the realities that come with the actual experience, even though experience should be informing our states of mind. 

You could make a case that this mad, irrepressible sanguinity is what compels human achievement, driving our ancestors out of the grasslands to spread out across the globe, and eventually sending some of us all the way to the lunar surface.  That’s probably true.  Though there’s another quality that sustains the effort, however na├»ve the launch. 

I know someone who’s always surprised and affronted when a project doesn’t go exactly according to plan.  As if a hitch in the works is the act of a malevolent, supernatural being, or the result of gross incompetence by someone other than the planner himself.   This flows from an assumption that things should always go right, when all the evidence tells us things will inevitably go wrong. 

At this late stage of life, I’ve come to accept that glitches, goof-ups, gaffes, blunders and misapprehensions are an integral part of the process, necessary, even indispensable.  At the company I used to run, people would ask if we had a problem, and I’d say it isn’t a problem unless we don’t have a solution.  It’s just the work. 

In the woodworking world, much of what I’ve learned has come from noodling through problems, or mistakes.  Since I hate wasting wood, I can usually salvage the effort, often by tinkering with the design.  (A piece cut too long is rarely an issue, since you can just cut it again.  It’s the too-short ones that wreak havoc.)  The goal isn’t to never make mistakes, it’s to avoid making the same mistake more than once. 

There are also those pleasant occasions when a mistake makes the project better.  Like a random mutation that improves a species’ chance of survival, some goofs are revealed to be a better approach in the first place.   Something faster, more precise or just better looking. 

Every writer has experienced those happy accidents when the writing suddenly veers off course and a far better idea emerges.  One could argue that these aren’t really mistakes, but rather the machinations of the subconscious taking control over the work and sending it along to where it should have been going in the first place.  The trick for the writer, or the woodworker, or plumber, is to embrace these little diversions, make adjustments and thank them for their service. 

Since it’s popular to relabel things once considered negative in order to sooth easily offended sensibilities (you’re not tone-deaf, just harmonically challenged), what’s called for is a redefinition of mistake.  Back at the company I worked for, we’d sarcastically describe some monumental f**kup as a growth opportunity.  That’s a good start.  Maybe “Unplanned Deviation From Projected Outcome”, or UDFPO. 

Or maybe just another life lesson, which if you’re lucky, will never stop being taught. 

4 comments:

  1. I remember reading the 1960s best-seller "Up the Down Staircase" by Bel Kaufman, where the new teacher, working at a really run-down underfunded high school, was constantly told by the principal, "Let it be a challenge to you." That's administrativese for "What could possibly go wrong?"

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    1. I'd often say to an employee, "I know it's a sticky issue, but you love a challenge."

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  2. Our class put on a play based on Up the Down Staircase. A couple of catchphrases from the book lasted for decades. ("Give 'em a round of clap!")

    When designing software, I'd ask employees (far too optimistic) to estimate weeks/months for completion, double it and then give me that figure. I'd double it again when turning the proposal in to the chief technical officer. More often than not, that figure proved more realistic.
    We also used incremental development on huge projects. We always kept the distant goal in sight, but we'd develop small pieces and gradually tie everything together. I've done monolithic development, but it takes a lot of focus and patience.

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    1. Our ad agency did a lot of software development, and you are certainly correct that estimates of time to completion (meaning cost to us and our clients) were usually grossly understated. I realized eventually that the developers meant it, being eternal optimists and full of self-regard. Like you, I upped the numbers a lot. Handling things in chunks was a smart approach. The other thing was to diligently manage scope of the project. Clients were devilish in creeping that scope, and then insisting it was part of the deal. We lost a fair amount of money figuring all this out, but along the way made a boatload of money, so it worked out.

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