Illustrated above is what I am calling The Winning Curve and it combines ideas from three books I have recently read:
- Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
- The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin
- Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin
The Winning Curve is applicable to any type of project or the current iteration of an ongoing program—professional or personal.
The Winning Curve starts with the Design Phase, the characteristics of which are inspired by Tim Brown (quoted in Switch.) Brown explains how every design phase goes through “foggy periods.” He uses a U-shaped curve called a “project mood chart” that predicts how people will feel at different stages of the design phase.
The design phase starts with a peak of positive emotion, labeled “Hope,” and ends with a second peak of positive emotion, labeled “Confidence.” In between these two great heights is a deep valley of negative emotion, labeled “Insight.”
The design phase, according to Brown, is “rarely a graceful leap from height to height,” and as Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains, “everything can look like a failure in the middle.”
Therefore, the design phase is really exciting—at the beginning.
After the reality of all the research, as well as the necessary communication and collaboration with others has a chance to set in, then the hope you started out with quickly dissipates, and insight is the last thing you would expect to find “down in the valley.”
During this stage, “it’s easy to get depressed, because insight doesn’t always strike immediately,” explains Chip and Dan Heath. “But if the team persists through this valley of angst and doubt, it eventually emerges with a growing sense of momentum.”
After The Winning Curve has finally reached the exhilarating summit of Confidence Mountain (i.e., your design is completed), you are then faced with yet another descent, since now the Development Phase is ready to begin.
Separating the start of the development phase from the delivery date is another daunting valley, otherwise known as “The Dip.”
The development phase can be downright brutal. It is where the grand conceptual theory of your design’s insight meets the grunt work practice required by your development’s far from conceptual daily realities.
Everything sounds easier on paper (or on a computer screen). Although completing the design phase was definitely a challenge, completing the development phase is almost always more challenging.
However, as Seth Godin explains, “The Dip is where success happens. Successful people don’t just ride out The Dip. They don’t just buckle down and survive it. No, they lean into The Dip.”
“All our successes are the same. All our failures, too,” explains Godin in the closing remarks of The Dip. “We succeed when we do something remarkable. We fail when we give up too soon.”
“Real Artists Ship”
When Steve Jobs said “real artists ship,” he was calling the bluff of a recalcitrant engineer who couldn’t let go of some programming code. In Linchpin, Seth Godin quotes poet Bruce Ario to explain that “creativity is an instinct to produce.”
Toward the end of the development phase, the Delivery Date forebodingly looms. The delivery date is when your definition of success will be judged by others, which is why some people prefer the term Judgment Day since it seems far more appropriate.
“The only purpose of starting,” writes Godin, “is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.”
Godin explains that the primary challenge to shipping (i.e., completing development by or before your delivery date) is thrashing.
“Thrashing is the apparently productive brainstorming and tweaking we do for a project as it develops. Thrashing is essential. The question is: when to thrash? Professional creators thrash early. The closer the project gets to completion, the fewer people see it and the fewer changes are permitted.”
Thrashing is mostly about the pursuit of perfection.
We believe that if what we deliver isn’t perfect, then our efforts will be judged a failure. Of course, we know that perfection is impossible. However, our fear of failure is often based on our false belief that perfection was the actual expectation of others.
Therefore, our fear of failure offers this simple and comforting advice: if you don’t deliver, then you can’t fail.
However, real artists realize that success or failure—or even worse, mediocrity—could be the judgment that they receive after they have delivered. Success rocks and failure sucks—but only if you don’t learn from it. That’s why real artists always ship.
The Winning Curve
I named it “The Winning Curve” both because its shape resembles a “W” and it sounds better than calling it “The Failing Curve.”
However, the key point is that failure often (if not always) precedes success, and in both our professional and personal lives, most (if not all) of us are pursuing one or more kinds of success—and in these pursuits, we generally view failure as the enemy.
Failure is not the enemy. In fact, the most successful people realize failure is their greatest ally.
As Thomas Edison famously said, “I didn’t find a way to make a light bulb, I found a thousand ways how not to make one.”
“Even in failure, there is success,” explains Chip and Dan Heath. Whenever you fail, it’s extremely rare that everything you did was a failure. Your approach almost always creates a few small sparks in your quest to find a way to make your own light bulb.
“These flashes of success—these bright spots—can illuminate the road map for action,” according to the Heaths, who also explain that “we will struggle, we will fail, we will be knocked down—but throughout, we’ll get better, and we’ll succeed in the end.”
The Winning Curve can’t guarantee success—only learning. Unfortunately, the name “The Learning Curve” was already taken.