It is getting to late September and we approach the vaunted holiday of the Fiscal New Year when government projects, both new and old, start their annual cycle. In the last couple of months of the current fiscal year we make our plans for the following year. All this planning usually entails setting objectives and goals with a lucky few getting major milestones to gauge progress. In most cases we have effectively planted the seeds of failure in the process. We are literally planning our failure in advance.
It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.
― Theodore Roosevelt
I’ll be right up front with suggesting something better that might include the current plans as a part, but in a far different role. Why not choose to make the primary goals in planning something aspirational? Something worth achieving and worth pride of ownership and commitment rather than the pre-packaged mediocrity we accept today. I would suggest having three distinct levels of deliverables and milestones:
1. What you would hope and love to achieve?
2. What you will probably achieve?
3. What is the worst possible outcome?
The point is to define a set of goals that spans the potential outcomes including the best to the worst of what might be achieved. Right now, we tend to define something between 2 & 3, which is serving us quite poorly. We are increasingly heirs to a legacy of mediocrity where greatness should have reigned.
Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.
― Gloria Steinem
In the current milieu you almost never hear aspirational goals as part of research (I will touch on one case below!). Increasingly, the goal is to play it safe, and deliver what you signed up for. This goes hand-in-hand with the mantra under-promise and over-deliver, which is almost never the actual case. Most projects are under-promised and delivered in the under-promised manner. I’ve been guilty of it myself; it is the standard MO. Our collective horizon of achievement is increasingly defined by fear of failure rather than hope for achievement. We lack a vision for accomplishing anything great, memorable and astonishing.
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
― Paulo Coelho
We are sacrificing our future on the altar of management while systematically undermining our technological and scientific supremacy in the process. In many key areas such as applied mathematics, computational science, engineering among others we have already ceded the lead to other parts of the globe. I’ve watched this happening for the length of my career as once great institutions crumble under the weight of the current climate of incompetence masquerading as “best practices” borrowed from our morally and ethically bankrupt corporate culture. Just as the corporate culture is destroying the middle class in the United States, the practices are hollowing out our ability to achieve great things in science, engineering and technology. Key to the forces is the absolutely overwhelming attention to the short term coupled to the devaluation of the long term. With the long term goes the ability to dream of achieving anything great. Great things take time and commitment, something our management culture does not allow.
Don’t mistake activity with achievement.
― John Wooden
The climate of planning and the demands for accountability is creating an environment that has stifled quality, innovation and progress. Its ability to choke the vibrancy from research has reached a crisis level with the mindset creating the direct opposite of the intended outcome (at least I’m assuming the intent is positive). All of this is packed into the soul-crushing drumbeat of the quarterly progress report and constant reviews. Those of us going through this process have almost uniformly adopted a way of managing this cycle of mediocrity. One always picks deliverables that have already been completed, or can be completed with no risk. Milestones are the same thing; the work has already been done. All that is needed for success is just showing up and checking the boxes. No one is supposed to put forth any goals that might be challenging or possibly be missed. No risks should be taken.
We have taken World-class scientific institutions and systematically weakened or destroyed them in the name of management. Leadership of any sort is virtually absent relegated to the stuff of legend. Our science is woefully over-managed and depressingly under-led. Our project plans say otherwise, we are successful every year, decade after decade as we march toward a future that will undoubtedly punish us for our naivety and sense of entitlement. Part of the problem is the inability of those in charge of our Country to properly articulate and recognize the key difference between failures due to incompetence as opposed to a failure arising from a well-crafted attempt to succeed at something majestic. In today’s America there isn’t any difference, and people have responded with safety delivered in mediocrity.
We can thank our increasingly greedy and dysfunctional corporate culture, which has been mindlessly adopted as the model for managing anything. This has created the quarterly progress mentality, which must always succeed. Corporate American has the same mantra where a Company must show a good balance sheet every quarter or suffer the wrath of the stock market. The balance sheets are cooked and companies are shaken down regardless of the long-term damage done. The long-term perspective has been destroyed. Companies invest little or nothing R&D continually savaging their own future to assure a good quarterly report. Given this model of propriety we shouldn’t express any surprise over the damage done where this approach as been adopted. Still some things still slip through the cracks.
The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is a shining example of failure at high-level goals. I have to admit feeling a certain smugness when they failure, but perhaps I was too harsh. NIF has lofty and worthy goals, success would have been glorious for NIF and for the Nation and World. It is too bad they didn’t succeed. Like all failures, the real failure would be not learning from the mistake. The jury is still out on whether or not they will learn.
Never was anything great achieved without danger.
― Niccolò Machiavelli
Questions remain about the nature of the failure to reach breakeven ignition. Could or should have the failure been predicted? What does it say about our knowledge of the science of inertial fusion in the light of the failure? Was the confidence in ignition a sign of hubris or narcissistic chest beating? Taken in the best possible way, NIF had a lofty and worthy goal and they went for it. That is really a good thing. Now, it is important that we all learn from this and science progresses to better attempt ignition in the future. We need to understand how to predict what actually happened. We need our knowledge to grow and improve future performance. If these improvements do not materialize then NIF will really be a failure.
What NIF probably highlights is a certain lack of quality in planning associated with the intrinsic uncertainty of outcomes. It is a case where the best-case scenario is the only one visible. In reality, there are multiple things that could happen: best case, likely case and worst-case outcomes. We ought to really have all three firmly in mind when examining a research project. This is a place where my suggestion of spanning the possibilities would have lent much needed credibility to the research outcomes instead of leading to a public relations black eye. We should laud NIF for its vision and audacity; we need many more projects to shoot for the audacious outcomes. We need this with enough honesty to admit that the likely outcome won’t be anywhere as majestic as what the best-case promises.