Rewarding Failure?

Richard pointed out to me a great little blog post entitled "Does Software Development Have A Culture Of Rewarding Failure".

The post asks why those who bring home projects over budget and over time with a huge flurry of last minute effort seem to be more rewarded than those who get it all done on time and on budget.

Unfortunately it is not only during software development that this type of behaviour occurs, it can permeate many other industries and business environments. But why is this so?

Is it simply everyone loves a hero, the underdog, fighting against incredible odds to achieve the near-impossible?
They certainly are more visible, appearing incredibly dedicated, sacrificing their evenings and weekends as they struggle to complete that big project on time (or at all) as opposed to the other team who 'easily' got it all done on time and within budget.
The author makes the point "...everyone expected the project to go well and when it did, no-one was surprised, everything went according to plan, why would anyone reward or even acknowledge it when things go according to plan?"

It reminds me a little of the old Y2K bug (remember that one?). Lots of people working very hard to ensure nothing went wrong. And when nothing did go wrong (ie: success!) the question was asked by some management: "Geez what did we spend all that time and effort for? Nothing happened!"

Information Security is in a similar boat. Money and resources are allocated to security projects can seem to be wasted when, well, nothing happens! Which of course in many cases was the point of the expenditure; to stop the bad thing from occurring.

I'm reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's excellent book 'The Black Swan: The Impact of the highly Improbable'* at the moment, which discusses (amongst many things) our cognitive bias towards narratives. We like a story, a bit of colour, and this can affect our rational view of facts. In regards to the current topic, consider the following:

  • The Project finished on time.
  • The Project finished on time because we all worked 7 days a week, 16 hours a day for the last two weeks to meet the deadline.
Which statement seems more likely? I'd wager that, from the gut, for most people it is the second one.

There can also be a mindset of "if you're not running around in crisis mode at crunch time, then you must have budgeted too much time to start with!". We value effort, and in 'deadline crisis mode' the effort is more visible.
Some of this may also be the result of the vicious circle created by 'rewarding failure' in the past because in people's experience all the projects that arrive with a big bang and flurry of 'crunch time' activity to meet the deadline are the ones most valued (ie: rewarded).
Never mind the hidden costs of the project deadline death-march, which may be represented by cut corners, resulting in quality and security problems to be addressed 'sometime' down the track.

This whole topic brings to mind an old Dilbert comic about an employee getting an award for working overtime and weekends fixing the mistakes he caused in the first place.

I can only agree with Alan Skorkin on this one when he states "I for one would love to see a little bit more appreciation from everyone for projects where things go according to plan and especially for the people on those projects...rather than celebrating the belated delivery of the latest death-march, how about digging into it and trying to figure out why it was 6 months late and why people had to work 80 hour weeks to keep it from complete disaster".

*If you're involved at all in looking at (or trying to second guess!) future events or trends - like many Infomation Security professionals - I highly recommend Mr Taleb's book.

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