Failure is the Most Likely Option

Clay Shirky writes,

Failure is always an option. Engineers work as hard as they do because they understand the risk of failure. And for anything it might have meant in its screenplay version, here that sentiment means the opposite; the unnamed executives were saying “Addressing the possibility of failure is not an option.”

He talks about what I call the suits vs. geeks divide. Recall that I originally coined this to describe the unwillingness of financial executives to listen to geeks who worried about the risk in mortgages.

When a large organization, such as government or a legacy media organization, undertakes a new initiative, they are in effect starting a new business. Most start-ups fail, so that failure is in fact the most likely outcome. But if you have spent your whole life playing office politics (or real politics) to get to the top of an established organization, you may not have had any training in dealing with something as fragile as a new enterprise.

If you start a new enterprise, it is a good idea to start small and build incrementally. In fact, that is how President Kennedy’s initiative to put a man on the moon was carried out.

But the health care law was designed to be big and complex from the beginning, and nobody wanted to allow for the possibility of failure. Even now, many progressives deny that it will fail. My sense is that the law is in fact a total failure, with the web site perhaps the least of its problems.

7 thoughts on “Failure is the Most Likely Option

  1. Why is that your sense? If you discount obvious PR failures (telling people they wouldn’t have to give up their plan) and the website failures it’s not clear to me whether the actual guts of the thing are working as intended or not. Some people are getting enraged by rate shock, others are getting subsidies, others are losing employee plans, others will become part time workers, others are getting preexisting conditions covered, and still others aren’t much effected at all. I’m having a hard time finding numbers that would tell you 1. Whether these proportions are breaking out as planned, 2. Whether they are breaking out in a way economically sustainable for insurers, at least over the medium term, and 3. Whether they are breaking out in a way that is politically sustainable, at least over medium term. So far it just seems to be people shouting anecdotes.

    As for the bigger issues of new government programs being analogized to start-ups, I think it’s a good analogy for regulatory programs but maybe not for welfare programs. “The left can’t easily set up Byzantine wealth transfer programs that are sustainable over the medium term” is not something many people have ever thought. The ACA is, to me, more about wealth transfer than regulation (though it was sold the other way around).

  2. IME, “Failure is not an option” is what executives have said when failure is already the reality.

    When deadlines have completely fallen through, when requirements are either non-existent or bear no relevance to what the project actually needs, when project management has turned out to be completely out of touch with the project needs, C-Level execs trot out “Failure is not an option” to make it look like things haven’t already fallen apart.

    More importantly, though, it’s a marker. If you hear that in a project, it’s time to leave. The project and perhaps even the organization. I’ve heard this a couple of times in my career. Every time, the project was already a complete failure and chanting this mantra didn’t help.

  3. There is a low bar however. It only has to fail less than our previous system which has been a total failure.

  4. 1). When the employer shoe drops next year it will be clear to the law’s supporters that they have a problem.

    2) When the true costs of the system begin to manifest themselves it will be clear that the law is fundamentally unsound (financially). The 10 years of taxes vs 6 years of benefits game that was played using the CBO will be shown to be the garbage that it was.

    3) There is no PR problem….it’s just that people are now aware of what a mess this is.

  5. The way in which the effects of this law only came to light in 2013 is a major surprise to me. Surely the insurance companies knew, and would have told any reporter interested in finding out.

  6. Re Suits vs. Geeks:

    Early on, during the ’80’s and having written my first Fortran program in 1968, there were a few of us who were (became) what I will call Sueeks. Hybrids who understood both user needs and implementation constraints and could effectively manage the interplay of business practice and system construction. I am sure there are many more of this type around today. We were the types who became the acolytes of people like Tom DeMarco: an approach to systems analysis which put the user needs/modes of doing business above the technical (however brilliant) magic of system building. Our main task, however, was to educate the Suits (old-timers) about what should be done to make their business model go, apart from the top down imposition of structure by the Geeks. (We kept them, socially inept, often difficult people, in the back room.) We emphasized user priorities and customer service over technique. We made money doing this (but never as much as we were worth).
    Nowadays, Geeks want to listen, but Suits in Governent (I will say Sugs, not Slugs) don’t have a clue about user needs, system/technical constraints, or customer satisfaction. More and more is looks to me like they really don’t care. But, while I’m sure they do, their fatal conceits prevent them from understanding the complexity of world around them. Unwitting Leninists.