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The Downside of Optimism
Your team needs optimism to build something new, but it can also blind them to the risks.
When you are building something new, you need optimism. Long before you know it will work, you need to believe it might work. Optimism is the fuel that allows you to overcome the fears, doubts and risks that haunt any new endeavor.
As a result, teams building something new abound with optimism. Whether you are starting a new company or releasing a new feature, the team believes it might work. In the early days of any business this is a great thing, as optimism prevents you from wasting your time worrying about failure. At the early stage there are so many ways to fail that it’s entirely impossible to mitigate them all, and it’s not worth your time to even worry. You have to take risks.
However, as your business grows that same optimism can blind your team to potential failures. As you are scaling you still need to take risks, but you need to start to choose the risks you take. Too many risks lead to too many failures and those failures rob you of momentum and speed. Prototype cars are built by hand, but production cars are built on assembly lines for a reason.
This inflection point, between building something new and scaling something proven is a delicate moment. The techniques and skills that helped you build something new become a liability, as you need new techniques and skills to scale. If you don’t handle the inflection point well you can fail.
When you are scaling, you need to anticipate problems that might occur so you can head them off before they happen. The more problems you prevent, the faster you move. The more problems you encounter, the slower you go.
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One hidden liability of scaling is that the same optimism that helped your team overcome early hurdles can prevent them from anticipating those problems. They might assume things will work out according to plan, instead of thinking critically about how a new product, partnership or campaign might fail. If they can’t think critically about those failures, they can’t anticipate problems.
The good news is that this is an easy problem to overcome if you understand it. One technique that I find useful is the “pre-mortem”. Before any new project is released, the team needs to think through all the ways it might fail and why. Each of those failure modes should be accompanied by what they would do to fix or prevent it, just like a post-mortem that happens after the fact. The difference here is that a pre-mortem is happening before launch and forces them to think through failure modes and prepare instead of just reacting to failures when they happen.
Even with pre-mortems, optimistic teams will learn the hard way that they have a blind spot for failures. When they do fail, it’s important to support them through the learning experience but to also ensure it doesn’t happen again. Learning a hard lesson once is useful, learning it twice is failure. The pain of that first big failure, which could have been anticipated, is usually enough to shake them out of the optimism bubble and learn these new habits.
Optimism is a good thing, and required to start anything new. Just be careful it doesn’t become a liability later.