Of course the presence of stubborn egos was going to create personality conflicts. Of course the CEO’s absence was going to increase the rift, which caused a communication breakdown, which lead to a catastrophe.

The waterfall model is bad, your org needs to be agile, product development is iterative. These things go without saying. We all know that effective communication is essential, a sense of purpose and meaning for a team is essential. A sense of ownership and passion is essential.

Hindsight is 20/20. It gives us a handsomely wrapped, concise recollection of what happened and who did it. Who is to blame and who is to thank. Yet reality never feeds us these lessons on a silver platter. Have you ever found yourself blind-sighted by your company’s hard times or failure? Have you ever found yourself wondering how a well-designed photoshop document ended up as a mis-aligned application? Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an employee exodus? None of us intentionally ignore problems, and most of us don’t intentionally sabotage our products. Yet these things happen.

My career, short as it is, has demonstrated a pattern that repeatedly occurs after bad situations: People move on. They psychologically shift to whatever is next on their plate and hope for the best. Taking the time to reflect, understand what happened and the conditions that led to a bad outcome is what leads to professional growth. That’s how intuition is developed: Wit, Wisdom aren’t divinely handed to us on birth, they’re cultivated, formed out of our experiences and the lessons we draw from them.

Foresight – the ability to anticipate and recognize problems and bad behavioral patterns and conditions before they have the chance to sprout and wreck havoc becomes a very powerful force when combined with hindsight. Hindsight helps you deal with issues when they happen, foresight helps you prevent those preconditions from happening in the first place. Whereas hindsight is a defensive mechanism, foresight is an offensive mechanism. Failure is the most effective form of growth. It provides us the experience necessary to develop our foresight.

Where did the Red Bull Go?

Red Bull is to engineers as gasoline is to engines. We’ve had a constant supply of Red Bull for as long as I could remember, yet the Red Bull was mysteriously gone that day. Cutting costs, it turns out. By the time you have to cut costs, you’re probably running out of money. By the time you’re running out of money, you probably missed a big sale, or you mis-calculated some event’s outcome. Whatever the reason, it’s a bad sign when the employees are surprised. Surprises are bad. Surprises mean information was not disseminated and people are not on the same page. Sometimes these things are inevitable, due to some act of (human) nature, but this wasn’t one of those cases.

It was a an early-stage startup, and my first experience at such a small company. Coming in, I had trouble shedding my mentality of waiting to be told what to do and expecting that the higher-ups were taking care of everything. I had gut feelings of badness, but I suppressed them. It struck me as odd that people didn’t feel scrappy. Our office was too nice, our equipment was too nice, we took our survival for granted. I didn’t do anything about it. Our management had interpersonal/communication issues. I thought it would figure it self out, so I didn’t step in. People were starting to get dissatisfied, I didn’t step up.

This is my hindsight. At the time, I was a double-digit employee, so you may say that I’m unfairly blaming myself. But the reality is, an organizations fate is determined by those who work there. I should’ve had the foresight to see how these conditions would combine and play out, to do something about it. I didn’t. Lesson learned.

How Could This Pixel Be So Broken?

Every now and then I come across a page/product/view that is so broken, I can’t help but wonder about the process of its development. Apart from deadline constraints (A topic for another post), shipping a broken UI means a few things: It means somebody signed off on a broken UI, it means an engineer either didn’t consult the designer or the designer didn’t review the engineer’s work. It means the engineer and the designer were working separately. Most importantly, it means the designer designed something, passed it off, and moved on. Sound familiar? It should for two reasons: This is how most software is built, this is the Waterfall model. 

There is nothing so universally derided as the Waterfall model in our industry, and nothing so ironically prevalent. It’s not an obvious thing to notice. For you to pick up on it, you need to be able to notice the UI details, you need to be aware of the root problem, and you need to observe the team dynamics. This isn’t a failure of tools or process, this is a failure of communication.

Often, what happens is that a bug finds its way to the engineer, they fix it, and they move on to the next feature, waiting to repeat the same mistake. The mistake here isn’t the padding on that view, the mistake is that there wasn’t a perpetual, ongoing conversation and review process between the engineer and the designer. It’s far too common for engineers to view designers as  asset-factories, or as Gods of product wisdom. We’re taught in college to treat specs as immutable and final, but in reality, they’re anything but. A designer’s spec is a proposal, to be refined ceaselessly by the designer and the implementor. Designers don’t hand specs to engineers, product teams together hand products to consumers.

Fix the cause, not the symptom.

Final Thoughts

I wanted share an insight that I found has been invaluable: The realization that problems don’t explode, they fester and build up, that there are early rumbling signs that predate the problem, that we all have the ability to influence the sequence of our events is powerful. There are no heroes of product development, there are just people who cared enough and passionate enough to do something about it.

I can’t give you a checklist of early indicators to watch for, there are too many and they’re specific to your situation. Your intuition is your greatest assets, and it’s formed by your experiences. Take a second to think back to a failure. What does hindsight tell you? What was the lesson? What were the early indicators of trouble? How could you have prevented them?