victory laps

There’s one key fact about the Grand Canyon I can’t stop thinking about: You cannot see the bottom from the top, nor the top from the bottom. When you look down (or up), what you see is approximately the halfway point between elevations. The changes are so large over so much space that there’s never a clear line of sight for the full distance.

Software projects often happen in similar fashion. You can think you can see where you’re headed, but more often than not it’s about twice as far as you thought. That gap is part of what makes a successful finish so exhilarating. The road was much steeper and longer than anticipated, but you made good choices and got to the end. That moment is a precious one. I will never forget reaching the top of the Grand Canyon after starting at the bottom. I will never forget the first time my small open source project actually ran.

In startups, these victories are shared moments that can rally an entire company. Whether it’s the new feature launching, landing the giant deal, or making a diving save in an emergency, there are these moments that folks get to take a victory lap and share their success with the company. Legends are born and stories are passed on for years.

I suspect many companies struggle to bring “victory lap” moments into their medium-sized business work days. Communication challenges typically scale faster than communication plans. Context loss means you might not understand the victory lap moment even if someone announced it. Even the idea of “moments” get lost in a longer process where it’s no longer clear which step is “victory” — was it passing QA, the staggered prerelease, the wide launch, or not getting buried by support tickets in the days following launch?

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If internal processes don’t map to this idea (and you could argue the point of a workflow like Kanban is precisely to not map to it), then it takes someone artificially creating those moments, which requires intent and effort. What doesn’t require special intent and effort? Finding problems or moving onto the next challenge. The tension of trying to a ship a thing merely gradually slackens and fades, then slowly begins again. Everything seems fine, but there’s an erosion of significance.

If you’re not getting victory laps, you haven’t adequately defined success. In a startup, everyone can infer what success means. Once that fades, it’s really great communication or bust.