Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Unemotional Pivot?

I've been working on a project for the last eight months. We committed to the process in June 2022, and now in February 2023 we are saying this doesn't work, we're essentially canceling this project and pivoting to something that we know we can make work.

What changed? Well we originally picked the old process based on assumptions we had about lead times, and technical ability to do certain things. And we did have progress. We broke ground in areas that I don't think anyone else has explicitly done. We read published literature and didn't find anyone doing exactly what we were doing. We also had (have?) a path to success using that process we committed to, however we all came to realize that the amount of time and money needed to make that successful was more than we had available. Doing a new cool thing for the sake of doing a new cool thing doesn't make businesses successful. It's about making and shipping a product to a paying customer, or some variation of that as it relates to delivering a service. So we decided to make a change.

For all practical purposes this was essentially a secret development. Only a handful of people actually understood what we were doing. So in the spectrum of failures, it wasn't even remotely public, even across the organization. However, as I've thought about it the last couple weeks, I feel this sense of emotional defeat and personal failure. I advocated for this process, and it failed. As much as I try to make it an unemotional pivot, we tried a technical path and it didn't work, so we're going to go to a more well established path, there is still that sense of failure. 

As I reflect on the failure, there are three technical pieces of information that had we known any one of them at the beginning we probably would not have gone down this path. One was an obvious one, but also one that there was some limited published papers suggesting that it was an issue that could be solved. Unfortunately we ended up solving that problem in an expensive way by adding a whole other process. The second and third issues were unfortunately specific to the application of the process that we chose. I'm trying to avoid any hint of specifics on this because it's part of the secret sauce in my industry. Those second and third issues, had we known from the outset, would hopefully have stopped us in our tracks.

It's not all negative, I've learned a ton in the process. There are some technical things that I now know, with many applications, that were very difficult lessons to learn. I now know from experience some things which could potentially save my company even millions of dollars on future projects. Still, in this moment, it feels like a waste. As I like to say, we created "desk art" which is to say very expensive pieces of hardware that will never be used because they were ultimately a failure.

Can you have a big pivot and not have emotions attached to it? I'm not sure. The more time and effort that gets invested into something the more sunk cost hope there is that it will succeed. By the same token, it's okay to feel bad about going down a dead end. Now you know it's a dead end. One day you might even laugh about it.

While the result of going down this path for eight months hurts emotionally as it feels like failure, I'm really proud of the team that worked on this and pushed the technology forward! We learned an incredible amount. We did things that are truly cutting edge technology. And like most business projects we developed a number of new business relationships that you never know how they might be mutually beneficial in the future. It's a small world, and it's fun to be a part of it.

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