Rubber Gloves, Not White Gloves

I’ve always loved to be involved in making things happen, on the ground.  The detail of execution, the individual decisions that mount up to determine success or failure – I like to plunge my hands into the engine grease.  Hence, rubber gloves, not white gloves.

That enthusiasm hasn’t always been embraced by the environment I’m in – places where the focus was on Big Ideas™, not the minutia of execution.  In academia, research labs, and staff or management roles, I was often supposed to step back, see the bigger picture, and identify the key trends and leverage points.  I love to do that, but I find that big ideas often become irrelevant if you are disconnected from the details.  In studying many projects that both succeeded and failed, my conviction has only deepened that the combination is where the magic lies.

Combining Vision and Execution

A great example is Brunelleschi, the architect who designed the beautiful Duomo – the dome that sits atop the famous cathedral that dominates the skyline of Florence.

It took 140 years to complete the building; the dome had remained a puzzle for decades because nobody could figure out how to build it.  The solution called for rediscovering ideas that had been forgotten since the days of the Roman Empire, and new inventions that had never been tried before.

Brunelleschi solved the problem in 1419 and got the commission, dedicating most of his adult life to constructing the dome and other parts of the cathedral.  The dome took more than four million bricks (37,000 tons of material!), and with the lantern on top stood 375 feet high.  He got a couple of the first patents ever issued to protect his ideas for a new kind of hoisting machine and a river transport vessel.  Brunelleschi was intimately involved in every step of the construction, laid some of the bricks himself, and immersed himself in every detail (including the work schedule and diet of the people doing the construction).  If you are interested, check out the Wikipedia entry; Ross King did a great job telling the story in more detail in the book, Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Another interesting case study was the race to reach the South Pole first in 1911.   Two expeditions were involved.  One party, led by Robert Scott, was less focused on the details of planning and preparation.  The other, led by Roald Amundsen, was a great example of deep focus on every detail.  Amundsen insisted that every member of the expedition be an expert skier who had been practicing the sport since they were children.  Scott’s team mostly couldn’t ski.  Amundsen prepared navigation sheets so that they wouldn’t have to make complex calculations when they were exhausted.  Four out of five members of his final team were experienced navigators.  Scott had one, and used a technique that required more calculation.  Amundsen relied heavily on sled dogs and figured out how to keep them properly fed and cared for.  Scott’s team didn’t want to rely as much on dogs so they were dependent on horses, which turned out to be poorly adapted for the conditions.

Both teams were staffed with brave and seasoned explorers, but the results starkly illustrate the cost of poor focus on execution basics.  Amundsen got to the pole first and returned successfully without losing a man.  Scott, and the four companions who made it to the pole with him, all died.

Right Vision, Bad Execution

There are many, many examples where a compelling vision but poor execution leads to disaster.  It often happens even if the vision is a great and achievable one.

I thought it was very interesting to learn about the history of the Panama Canal in the excellent book by David McCullough called Path Between The Seas.  Basically, there was a competition to come up with the design for a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and avoid the laborious and dangerous trip around South America into the treacherous waters of Drake’s Passage.  A Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, had been the leading spirit behind the Suez Canal and came up with a hastily slapped together plan that chose a sub-optimal path and paid little heed to the enormous engineering challenges.  An American team very carefully and thoughtfully developed an alternative based on extensive surveys.  Lesseps, who was a charismatic, larger than life figure with little engineering knowledge, carried the day anyway and inspired investors to finance the effort.

An engineering group estimated it would cost $214 million; Lesseps cut that to $120 million with no real justification.  After eight years, 22,000 people had died (mostly of malaria and yellow fever – nobody realized that they were spread by mosquitos) and $235 million dollars had been spent, but the project was only partially done with the hardest issues unresolved.  The company went bankrupt.   The project was eventually taken over by the American government, after a fifteen year delay, and it took another $375 million and nine years to complete (but came in under the budget estimate!).  I think it’s a powerful example of a great vision, uncoupled to strong execution, leading to horrible results.  Then that same vision, carried forward in more pragmatic and expert hands, created a vital global resource.

Vision is Crucial .. but Must Not Become Decoupled From Reality

I’m a great believer in the importance of vision and strategy.  But strategy has to be deeply, deeply informed by all the infinite detail of execution.  And in looking at brilliantly successful strategies in technology, I’ve found that they are often emergent properties.  They were glimpsed, and then refined, by someone steeped in a deep understanding of their markets and the technology forces transforming them.  A kernel of insight evolves into a huge success – it doesn’t leap forth from the mind fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.   Having a big and bold goal is fantastic .. but strategy is shaped, and success or failure is determined, by the execution.

Great execution is hard and requires endless focus and obsessiveness to achieve.  I’ve mostly worked on large software projects, and when you are building something that has millions of lines of code in it, the team must work together extraordinary well.  Such projects call for Herculean efforts and tiny bits of friction can lead to huge problems.  The code, the test suites, the shiproom triage meeting, the bug count, the milestone definition .. those are the clay and brick from which the great cathedrals are forged.  Lose your connection to the grit and the glue at your peril.

That’s why I love being in a startup .. we have a bold vision for what we hope to achieve, but our days are full of designing and building the product with endless and loving focus on every detail.  Hopefully we are achieving a combination of vision and execution that will let us have the impact we aspire to make in the lives of our users.

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