“It ain’t over till it’s over.”
—Yogi Berra 1973
We’re given lots of advice in business about how to pursue success. Even how to define success.
But I’m interested in when you know you’ve succeeded or failed.
For example, there are two schools of thought in the innovation world about how much time to devote to an idea. One view recommends trying an idea very quickly and killing it equally quickly if it fails to show signs of promise. This is the “fail fast” view.
The other school of thought points out that ideas often morph over time, and that killing the weak seedling of an idea prevents us from every finding out if it could have grown into a mighty sapling.
And I simply wonder: how do we decide when the game is over? It seems foolhardy to decide if you’ve won or lost before the game is over, and insane to argue whether you’ve won or lost once the game has been called.
When should we call the game?
I draw a lesson here from a homebrewing experience several years ago. I was brewing a beer that was a clone of the legendary Founders KBS. This is a rich, chocolatey, coffee-favored, bourbon-barrel aged stout. So, I bought a kit that cloned the recipe and I made the beer.
The beer has more than 11% alcohol. That’s more than double a typical mass-produced yellow fizzy lager.
Now yeast, strangely enough, produce the alcohol in the beer, but then they get high on their own supply and fall into a stupor. You can wake them by giving them more food — sugar of some sort — and then they’ll consume the sugar, shit out alcohol, and fall asleep again. (Hmm. I suppose some people are not much different from yeast.)
To paint the picture for you of the brewing process, I started by making wort — the predecessor of beer. It’s basically a sweet sticky barley soup. I cooled it down, put it in a bucket, and then tossed in the yeast (which transforms wort into beer) and some bourbon-soaked oak chips. The yeast take a couple of weeks to produce alcohol and when they’ve finished consuming the sugar, they go dormant.
Now in order to prevent the bucket from exploding while the yeast are producing alcohol and CO2, you have to add an airlock to the bucket, which allows the gas to escape while preventing anything from getting into the beer.
So, when fermentation is done, you’re left with a largely non-carbonated beer — the gas has mostly escaped through the airlock.
Since I was bottling the beer, I had to recarbonate it naturally in the bottle. I added a carefully measured amount of sugar to the bucket and mixed it in. This reanimates the yeast. Then I transferred the beer from the bucket to bottles and sealed them. Inside each bottle, the yeast consume the sugar and create more alcohol and CO2. You end up with a bit more alcohol and a properly-carbonated beer.
It works in theory. And usually in practice.
On this one occasion, I had let the beer sit in the bucket for, perhaps, too long. The yeast got pretty hammered and passed out. Hard.
When I added the sugar they did not reanimate and do my bidding to carbonate the beer. Instead, they rolled over like your drunk buddy on your couch and asked where the Doritos were.
A few months later when it was time to check the beer, I popped open a bottle in great anticipation. But I did not hear the oh-so satisfying pop of carbonation when a beer bottle opens. Dead. Silence.
The beer was perfectly flat.
Oh well. I had gotten the yeast too damn drunk, and they were repaying me by failing to show up for work the next day.
Well, I wasn’t ready to give up. Experts said if you slowly rolled the bottle to resuspend the yeast, that could help. Along with time. Because yeast are independent-minded creatures and sometimes do things on their own damn schedule.
Another month went by. This time the beer must be done. I popped open a bottle. Again, failure. No fizz, just a flat beer. Alcoholic barley juice really. And I can tell you, there’s not much of a market for that.
I let three more months pass and tried again. Same result.
So, I gave up. Out of laziness, rather than dumping the bottles and cleaning them, I just left the case in my front closet.
A year or more later, I was getting ready to move. I was about to throw out this failed attempt at a great beer. But I said “what the heck” — which is a phrase I use to psych myself up to do something that seems hopeless.
I popped open the bottle and immediately heard that song of the Lord: The fizzy “pffft” sound when you open a properly-carbonated beverage. The skies parted. Thunderbolts careened across the sky. The angels fluttered down on my shoulders…and the little pixies engaged in all manner of inappropriate behavior. Boundaries, pixies, boundaries!
I tasted the beer. It was amazing. Exactly what I had intended. A year earlier.
Do you see where I’m going Madam? Sir?
We are not good at deciding when the game is over. Especially when dealing with substances and phenomena over which we lack mastery.
I thought I’d ruined the yeast and they would not have the strength to carbonate the beer.
They said, “Chill out you type A, over-aggressive, demanding, asshole of a taskmaster!” Yeast can sometimes be mean when they’re stuck in a bottle for a year.
Though I might have been done and considered it a fast fail when I first tasted it, the yeast were not done. They were just working on their own sweet time. I didn’t have to understand it, I just had to accept it.
Had I poured out the beer the first three times I tried it, I would have missed out on a beer I felt really proud of when it was done.
Let me tell you once more story.
When I was a Principal at SYPartners leading the IBM account, we were coming to the end of a 3-year retainer and starting to negotiate the next 3 years. We brought the client into a meeting where we had mapped every project we’d done for them over 3 years into 3 rows (by theme). And we connected projects with yarn — in a very Homeland Claire Danes manic episode. Or a Beautiful Mind moment, should you prefer that film.
One powerful lesson jumped off the wall: There were many bodies of work we had done that were considered failures at the time. But a year or two later they were reanimated and used to great success, or they spawned a different project based on the seeds that had been planted during that earlier “failure”.
We called those projects “failures” at the time because we didn’t realize the yeast was still working. Even if slowly.
We are terrible at deciding when the game is over.
What that tells me is that we should not encourage executives to “make tough decisions” to kill projects that aren’t working. Instead, we should train people to develop bolder visions, and to hold fast to them even when they don’t go well at first. We need to teach resolve. And the great sensitivity that enables us to sense when the yeast might just need some more time.
Arrogant people have a tendency to declare victory too soon. So, they can take credit and leave others to clean up the mess.
The efficiency minded-agile types have a belief in the power of their methods and leave no room for the unpredictability and capriciousness of yeast.
We have to leave room for both the science and the magic.
We have to recognize our limitations at predicting the future.
We have to fill ourselves with greater hope and a greater sense of possibility. Then go for it.
There is a time to kill an idea. But don’t pour what will be a great beer down the sink because in the battle of wills between you and the yeast, you blinked first.
We can be braver than that.