Raise the Floor
Making your worst day better is more important than making your best day better. We all love the ‘high’ of success, accomplishment, and attainment. Society emphasizes this: how many songs include some notion of “raise the roof”? Consider advertising: commercials and ads for vacations show how amazing a time you can have with the precious few days off that we take from the day-to-day. Having an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience might be a wonderful high, but it is short lived; we must eventually come home. No matter how high you climb, eventually you’ll have to come back down the other side. It is easy to become attracted to spending our resources on maximizing the experience at the peak rather than addressing the problems that vex us in the depths. I have come to believe that while it’s more challenging, it is more important to “raise the floor” rather than the roof.
Long-lived influential brands are not made by the success of their best days. We have all observed trends, brands that spike then fall into obscurity. The Icarus effect seems to be stronger and faster now than ever before, with increased communication amongst people thanks to the ubiquity of social media accelerating the pace at which people discover, adopt, then quickly become distracted away from whatever the flavor-of-the-day is. This phenomenon affects everyone, any age and every stage. Toys like fidget spinners show how this affects young people; Games like Wordle exploded then fell out of favor amongst middle age folks. These brands maximized their moment, made the most of their free media and their moment in the spotlight, but they didn’t have any staying power. Even if they’d 10x’d their impact during their moment I’m skeptical that they would be a significant part of our zeitgeist today.
The things that kill companies are their worst days, it is more important to prevent dying to those bad days than to maximizing the yield off the best days. That’s why investing in safety, monitoring, observability, testability, and experimentation are such hot topics amongst the software engineering community. We strive to make the most of growth periods, sure, but the concerns that keep engineering leaders up at night are not “could we have done more with our high moments”, rather we fret over our level of preparedness for the storms that lurk ahead.
As a pilot I am always seeking to improve my performance in the best of conditions. When I’m perfectly rested, my airplane in perfect shape, the weather offering both tailwinds aloft and surface winds right down your favorite runway: delivering a comfortable ride and a buttery-smooth landing are my expectations for my performance. These conditions are not, however, what I spend most of my time training for in the airplane. Hours are spent studying and practicing what I’ll do in suboptimal weather, when something goes wrong. Why do I spend this time? To make sure that even on my worst flight, my ugliest landing will still result in walking away from the journey. I’m making sure that my floor is not below a threshold that would put me in danger, that even my worst day doesn’t turn dangerous.
The prospect of raising the floor is daunting, much more so than lifting the ceiling. Why? We must lift the floor as we are standing on it! When The lowest days tend to stand out in our memories more than the best, reminding us of our failures more than our successes. Haunted by the emotions that accompany these experiences, it is easy to fall into a stifling negative spiral. I am working on using the same “blameless retrospective” that I’m familiar with from work in my personal life: using memories of the lows as triggers to ask “how will I do better next time” instead of wallowing in the failure. I find the reframing challenging and do not always succeed in using it, but when I do the additional agency that I am granted is powerful and helps me to consciously put in place systems and practices that serve to make the valley a little less deep the next time.