Setting Up for Failure

A bad system will beat a good person every time

— W. Edwards Deming

Perhaps one of the most perplexing things in the workplace is to find talented developers failing to accomplish the goals set forth in front of them. This becomes even more mysterious when they have had a past track record of being very successful. How does this happen? There are perhaps an uncountable amount of reasons this happens; however, I would like to cover several scenarios I have noticed over the years that seem to breed this behavior.

Unclear Objectives

This has many faces to it, but it boils down to vague descriptions of what is to be accomplished by a project. One of the best ways to identify if you have unclear objectives is when there is a lack of metrics to measure success. If you can’t measure success, it becomes difficult to produce anything. The project will continue to shift if the “general feeling” is there isn’t success. If you have a poor description of the problem and a problem describing how you can measure success you are setting yourself for a hard time.

Corporate Structure

There are way too many of these go into; but perhaps the best way to distill this problem down is with the problem of silos. When people speak about silos they sometimes refer to “marketing” versus “development”. Here is the business dictionary term for “silo mentality.”

A mind-set present in an organization when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality can reduce the efficiency of the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.

This leads to what appears to be sudden and irrational changes to product between departments. So much time is wasted working towards a goal that is changing when that goal information is not shared with other departments sooner.


Just hearing the word causes anxiety and tension in many developers. When management can’t trust their employees and vise-versa productivity always seems to come crawling to a snail’s pace. After some heavy reflection I have come to the conclusion most people don’t distrust others at the unhealthy levels that begin to kill your chances for success. What normally happens is people want more insight into a situation to help others. This is felt as distrust by the other party and without immediate clarification the cycle of distrust will get deeper and deeper.

As distrust grows everyone begins to naturally stop sharing information. This creates the same silo mentality that is so destructive. Something worse is people begin to sensationalize what they observe and assume the worst. The smallest of indiscretions causes everyone to loose focus on their work and instead worry about what may or may not be happening around them.