In this episode of Beneficial Intelligence, I discuss goal fixation. Richard Branson almost didn't make it back from space. His pilots had a problem and flew very close to the limit. They should have aborted. But the future of commercial spaceflight was resting on their shoulders. They were fixated on the goal, and that causes problems.
The reason we are finding out is that authorities noticed the flight was outside its designated airspace because stronger winds than expected caused the flight to have a different profile. The pilots got a red light ENTRY GLIDE CONE WARN. That means the spacecraft is so far from the planned course that it might not reach the place it has to be to glide to the landing site. The correct checklist approach is to abort the mission. But this was a highly-billed first commercial flight with the founder on board. The pilots pressed on. They managed to go to space and return safely. But they were dangerously close to the edge.
People die because they get fixated on the goal and push on. Mountaineers continue towards the summit after the safe turnaround time, and pilots fly into bad weather. Some of the well-known people we've lost to pilot goal fixation include basketball legend Kobe Bryant and Polish President Lech Kaczyński.
We see the same thing in failed IT projects. Multi-year, million-dollar projects keep collapsing ignominiously without anything to show for all the effort. This happens due to goal fixation.
Tragically, the problem is completely invisible to project sponsors who feel part of their reputation is on the line as sponsors of the project. It is also invisible to the program management and project leaders inside the project.
There are two solutions. One is to listen to the people on the ground. The programmers and testers know that a project will fail. The other is to get an independent outside opinion. That's what I provide to my customers. If you don't have a process for gathering in-the-trenches information, or an outside advisor, or preferably both, you are likely to fall prey to goal fixation.
Beneficial Intelligence is a bi-weekly podcast with stories and pragmatic advice for CIOs, CTOs, and other IT leaders. To get in touch, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org