These words are spoken whenever we go into planning “reportable” milestones in virtually every project I know about. If we are getting a certain chunk of money, we are expected to provide milestones that report our progress. It is a reasoned and reasonable thing, but the execution is horribly botched by the expectations that are grafted onto the milestone. Along with the guidance in the title of this post, we are told, “these milestones must always be successful, so choose your completion criteria carefully.” Along with this we make sure that these milestones don’t contain too much risk.
That would be dangerous.
People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.
Dangerous for whom, I wonder? Dangerous for what reason I ask?
The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.
The real danger in the philosophy we have adopted is the creeping intrusion of mediocrity into everything we do. Nothing is important enough to take risks with. The thoughts expressed through these words are driving a mindless march toward mediocrity, once great research institutions are being thrust headfirst into the realm of milquetoast also-rans. The scientific and engineering superiority of the United States is leaving in lockstep with every successfully completed milestone built this way.
There is no discovery without risk and what you risk reveals what you value.
Science depends on venturing bravely into the unknown, a task of inherent risk, and massive potential reward. The reward and risk are linked intimately; with nothing risked, nothing is gained. By making milestones both important and free of risk, we sap vitality from our work. Instead of wisely and competently stewarding the resources we are trusted with, they are squandered on work that is shallow and uninspired. Rather than being the best we can do, it becomes the thing we can surely do.
Never was anything great achieved without danger.
When push comes to shove, these milestones are always done, and always first in line for resource allocation. At the same time we have neutered them from the outset. The strategy (if you can call it that!) is self-defeating, and only yields the short-term benefit of the appearance of success. This appearance of success is believed to be necessary for continuing the supply of resources.
The long-term cost is systematic atrophy of the core identity of the Labs as centers of excellence. Today the Labs are being transformed into centers of compliance. No one can solely take the blame for this, it is the handiwork of the entire system.
You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.