When Excellence Fails

Every function has its own failure mode.

The failure mode of engineering is perfectionism: creating elegant, performant, debt-free architectures that either take too long to build, or solve the wrong problem entirely. Over-engineering is a trap, and one that many excellent engineers fall into.

The failure mode of marketing is tactics: spending too much time on individual campaigns and metrics and targets, and not enough on overall strategy (brand, positioning, value). Ironically, the more metrics- and results-driven you are, the more likely you are to make this mistake.

The failure mode of sales is quota-centrism: hitting monthly and quarterly sales targets at the cost of building long-term relationships with happy customers. Goldman famously wins because they are “long-term greedy”; too many high-performing sales people ignore this.

The failure mode of HR is proceduralism: putting process and paperwork above the strengths, weaknesses, nuances and needs of actual people. Often, these procedures create incentives that are antithetical to the health of the business (for example, while recruiting).

The failure mode of accounting is pedantry: reconciling every last penny in complex spreadsheets of limited relevance, but failing to capture the often-unique, often-inexact metrics that are actually important to business decisions. Good accountants understand uncertainty, flexibility, priorities, constraints, strength, weakness, health and fragility. Bad ones fixate on numbers.

The failure mode of operations is over-optimization: a lean machine with no redundancy and maximized throughput is vulnerable to situations out of the ordinary, that require creativity and exploration to resolve. Efficiency is good, but if everyone is just a replaceable cog, you lose imagination and innovation; you trade step-function change for incremental improvements.

The failure mode of legal is combativeness: negotiating aggressive contractual terms that detract from the win-win nature of all successful partnerships. It’s good to maximize the outcome of a particular deal; it’s better to maximize the outcome of an entire strategy.

You’ll notice two things about all of these failure modes. First, they all represent desirable behaviour, taken to extremes. Indeed, many people would describe these failure modes as “best practices”. Good engineers have high standards. Good marketers excel at tactics. Good salespeople hit quotas. Good HR managers implement process. And so on. But it’s possible to take these too far.

Second, these failure modes are all – without exception – the result of missing the forest for the trees: a seriouslack of perspective.

Functional excellence can lead to tunnel vision. You get so good at a particular task, you don’t see anything other than that task. And that can lead to disaster.

Alignment on vision helps avoid these failure modes.

Alignment gives people perspective; it helps them prioritize; it makes them productive. This is why knowing the big picture is so important – not just for leaders, but all the way down the ranks.

This is also why startups win and big companies lose. At bigcos, vision is often just jargon and platitudes. At smallcos, vision is tangible and achievable and actually relevant to your day-to-day tasks and decisions. People who know the “why” are far more effective at executing the “how”.

(Either that, or you have to micro-manage them forever. That’s not a recipe for sustainable growth.)

The failure mode of leadership is isolation: not communicating the vision, and then repeating it, again and again and again. You can never spend enough time sharing the big picture with your team. It’s good for strategy, it’s good for execution, it’s good for morale, it’s good for recruiting; it’s good, period. Yes, it takes time, and yes, it can feel repetitive, but it’s time well spent.

The failure mode of leadership is allowing these other failure modes to occur.