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Embracing Failure as a Likely Outcome – Sherpas of Mt. Everest

25 November 2010 No Comment


Is your software project steep and rocky? Can you predict the weather in your office? How many bodies lay on the side of your project trail?

The best sherpas on Mt. Everest expect failure and death as the most likely outcome. They assume that any grey cloud in the sky may develop into a dangerous fog bank, cold front, or blizzard. Recent powder on angled slopes above could pose an avalanche risk. Too quick a pace could dehydrate the team. Too slow a pace and nightfall may come before they reach the next base camp. A successful sherpa embraces these risks and elements entirely beyond their control and most importantly, they respect them. They know that embracing and understanding the mechanism of failure is just as important as fearing failure.

Balancing this realism while keeping morale up isn’t easy. Not to mention the political difficulties of making risk public. How forthcoming the sherpa is about their methods is a personal matter, but the best practices are documented and clear: Brutal honesty is the best medicine against failure.

It works for the sherpas on Everest.

Begin by raising the distinct possibility that this group can not or will not make this deliverable at all, on any date, ever. Proceed from that assumption and work your way towards success. Starting from that point may increase your chances of success dramatically. It will certainly cut down on fatalities. Don’t think of it as pessimism; think of it as experienced optimism.

Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, but past failure is a big, red stoplight. What has failed in the past on the team, on the project, or in the environment?

  • missed delivery dates
  • unhappy stakeholders
  • burned-out team members
  • buggy software
  • high staff turnover
  • projects in frequent transition

These are seldom causes of failure, just symptoms. The causes are often deeper and usually the result of compound problems in three areas:  planning, communication, and execution.  More on that in a future post.

Assume success and the warning signs of failure will go unnoticed until it’s too late.  Assume failure, keep your eye on the weather and on your team, and know that warning signs are sometimes indicators of larger, more dangerous, systemic problems.

That’s how sherpas reach the summit of Mt. Everest.

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