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We Need to Take Ownership for Success

We've all worked in situations that are less than optimal in this industry: projects that seem to go on forever, difficult people, long hours, constant surprises and fires to put out, the feeling that nothing will ever get done. In many organizations, the situation degrades to a point where those who could potentially see the big picture get their feet swept out from under them. The problems that appear to be endemic to your company are actually epidemic throughout the field.

In a culture in which missed commitments are the norm, it is easy for those with even the best intentions to ease into a comfort zone of blame. Sales and marketing seem to promise the world. The development group can't seem to meet expectations that were set elsewhere. That test team just can't be satisfied. Management wonders whether they will ever be able to herd all these groups to closure, and the customer can't seem to make up his mind. It's easy to place blame on one or more of the other groups, because you can then absolve yourself of any responsibility for change—it's outside your sphere of influence.

That view is shortsighted. All these groups with different responsibilities need to coordinate their efforts to bring the project to closure. This coordination is a combination of individual efforts toward a common goal. Realistic commitments need to be agreed upon and achieved. When they are not achieved, the root cause needs to be resolved by the group without resorting to blame. If the system is looked on as a whole rather than as a collection of separate teams, it is rare for external causes to be the cause of failure. The problems lie within, and are more often within our sphere of influence than we care to admit.

Software development is done by people, and is driven by relationships and communication. For any endeavor, effective communication is the primary asset that differentiates the successful team from the challenged group. To succeed, there needs to be an acknowledgement of individual contributions and clear intent to communicate from all individuals. We are all stakeholders with significant influence.

Owning Our Future

Whether we are officially in a recession or a full-blown depression, whether or not the improving economic indicators are real in the face of continuing challenges in the world, it is unnerving to observe how many executives will abdicate responsibility for their company's performance.

We seem to be facing a growing range of external threats such as wars, diseases, and severe weather, keeping uncertainty high and the economy challenged. With all this happening, it is unnerving to see how many companies just lay low in these tough times, waiting for external circumstances to change so that they can come out of their bunkers and flourish again. A couple of years after the dotcom implosion, we started to ask, "So, do you think things are turning around?" as an icebreaker at networking events. Usually, the response was "Things are looking better...," but the inflection was that of another question rather than an indicator of confidence.

My bet is that the external pressures driving uncertainty will not fade. There will always be conditions and events that make it difficult for businesses to easily thrive. After the dotcom bubble of huge returns and short-lived successes, when we finally realized that the "new business model" was unsustainable, we now remember that driving a successful business is not a walk in the park. The new business reality is that there is no new business reality, and likely will not be anytime soon. The fundamentals remain the same.

Carpe Diem

Seize the day. A literal translation from Latin is "to grab the current opportunity with gusto, without regard to the downstream ramifications." We can be more proactive at making these opportunities occur, instead of waiting for them to come up and bite us on the backside.

You can follow a few steps to take control of this day. First, you need to know what you are looking for in that day. Having clear, specific goals is critical in software projects and in life. Although I usually despise corny acronyms, SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and tangible) characteristics are critical attributes of good goals. These are the strategic targets that describe the positive future that you are working toward. "Begin with the end in mind," as Stephen Covey counsels.

When you understand your goals, you can then identify what these opportunities look like so that you can recognize them when they appear. Is it a new technology that you can leverage to your advantage? Maybe an unexpected opportunity for reuse arises that may cost you a little time now but save a bundle later. Perhaps an unlucky break somewhere else takes some of the pressure off of your deadlines. That one satisfied customer might be able to point you toward two more.

What seem to be just positive events can induce more strategic consequences, assuming that you understand where you want to go. The first one to jump on that new technology can become an industry leader. That extra time saved can allow you to focus on a new initiative that turns you in a bright new direction. One of those new prospects can turn into a strategic partner. Things start to happen.

You can also take this one step further, by proactively seeking these opportunities. With the recognition that each of these leads has the potential to become much more than just a nice event, the motivation to take charge of your own future increases dramatically. What happens is that you are always on your toes, watching for the opportunities, making these opportunities, and ready to run with them as soon as they arise.

When taking a planned, strategic approach, we need to go beyond carpe diem. We do not just seize the day opportunistically, we do not rely on luck or circumstance, we are in control. It is more a matter of procreo diem. We create our days and thus the outcomes we desire.

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