Planning for Luck

As happens from time to time, two events converge to create an idea. Today I watched Jimmie Johnson secure his fourth consecutive NASCAR championship, an event that almost didn’t happen due to one unlucky incident 2 races ago. On the same day, I see my friend Jim Bird’s blog post on the success of smaller teams (see Small Teams, Big Results on Jim’s blog). One point Jim raises early in his post is the subject of luck being a factor, specifically our luck in building the team we have at BIDS Trading Technologies. These two different events got me thinking about luck, and whether you can plan for it. When Jimmie and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, were interviewed over the last few races, they were both asked how luck played into their success and almost took this last championship away. Chad and Jimmie made an interesting observation: you can’t depend on luck, and you can’t predict it. The best you can do is put yourself in a position to avoid bad luck, or at least minimize the damage when luck goes against you, or to take advantage of it when luck is on your side.

This NASCAR race season has some great examples of luck helping and luck hurting. In Race 8 of the Chase this year, Jimmie and Chad played it conservative in the race, with a “safe” qualifying effort that left Jimmie back in traffic early in the race. Before the race started, he was several hundred points up on second place Mark Martin, and could clinch the championship in Phoenix one race early without having to race hard. Unfortunately in NASCAR, being back in traffic is sometimes asking for trouble. You are back among the less skilled drivers, and when they make mistakes wrecks ensue. Sure enough, Jimmie got caught up in a wreck, went the garage, and finished 38th, 30+ laps down. Suddenly, a Chase where no driver seemed to have a chance changed in those few seconds to where 2 other drivers realistically could be crowned the new king.

The two who would most benefit, however, didn’t do everything they could to take advantage of the wreck, and they both admitted it. Jeff Gordon and his crew chief, Steve Letarte, continued to run a conservative race, and they both admitted they screwed up. They needed to race hard, and go for the win. Mark Martin and his crew chief Alan Gustafson also admitted they didn’t push hard, and as a result Mark was also caught up in a wreck late, and didn’t have a great finish. Both drivers, with better planning and a better reaction to the situation could have made up a lot more points, and Mark could have even had a serious shot at taking the championship lead in Race 9. Instead, both “played it safe” and paid a price.

What does this have to do with software development? Well, consider that building a strong team is actually more about planning than luck. I believe it was fortunate that at BIDS we have a strong team, but to be honest, we planned it that way. We wanted a senior team we knew and trusted. For the Lowe’s 48 team of Jimmie and Chad, they planned their team too: good talent back at the shop, a good pit crew that gives solid, consistent, fast stops all race long. They also, like us in BIDS, work for a boss that gives a good team the room and support they need to get the job done.

Once the team is in place, now its a question of execution and being able to react. The one race in the last 10 Chase races that Jimmie and Chad “played it safe”, they put themselves in a position where bad luck is more likely to hurt you. Pushing hard before the race (in practice sessions and qualifying) risks damaging your best car for the track you are at. But if you don’t push, you don’t qualify up front and won’t stay up front. Being up front during the race means any wreck is going to be behind you, which is the best place to be. Being behind the wreck can put you into the crash. Basically, Chad and Jimmie took a less-than-ideal approach to execution, and paid a price as a result.

Their two closest competitors, however, chose not to react. When the door was opened at Texas for Jeff and Mark, they didn’t jump at the chance to take advantage of it. The only thing that held them back was their own conservative approach, one which the modern scoring rules for NASCAR ingrains in many teams. That approach is simple: better to take it conservatively, and get a good finish (and some points) than push aggressively and risk a bad finish (and a lot fewer points). However, that approach work against you if you follow it dogmatically, like Jeff and Mark’s teams did, and fail to adapt and use advantages when they appear.

The same goes for any kind of product development. First, start with the best team you can put together, and give them the right “equipment” (not just hardware/software, but processes, work environment and autonomy to do the right thing as much as is feasible). With that in place, you need to try to stay “out in front” when you can to keep as much of the unlucky things behind you as feasible. When an opportunity arises, and you can take advantage of bad luck encountered by your competition, you have the tools and the courage to “go for it” and take advantage of it as much as you can.

So, after Texas, you have 2 race teams beating themselves up for not being more aggressive. You have one race team you just got knocked down a peg, tightening up the competition. What happened in Phoenix? Did Jimmie and his team give up? Did Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin come to the next race guns blazing? No to both questions. Again, Mark and Jeff’s teams were too conservative, qualifying adequately but not racing as hard as they could trying for the win. Jimmie went all out, qualified first, led a lot of laps and won the race. In the last race of the season today, Jimmie again qualified first, was just aggressive enough for a good finish (he finished 5th in the race) but not so much that he risked losing the championship.

The same would go for any software team. Learn from past mishaps, but move on and focus on the next challenge. Make setbacks temporary, not permanent, and when the door is open to move ahead of your competition, push hard to take advantage of the opportunity. You can’t count on luck. What you can do is put yourself in a position where you can avoid bad luck as much as possible, and take advantage of good luck if it comes around.