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Posted on: Tuesday, 28 July 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Stupidity Is Not Always Loud And Clear.

Of all the seemingly harmless things that destroy projects in general and organizations in particular; thoughtless optimism mixed with wishful thinking is one of the items that tops the chart. Every year countless startups fall flat on their face and every year new startups with more thoughtless optimism replace them.

The amazing story of the shut-down of fly-clear by Joel Spolsky is a classic tale of thoughtless optimism gone wrong. The story is Intriguing of multiple fronts. The first front is the actual service that fly-clear was providing; which Joel describes rather well. He explains:

Here's how it worked while it was in business. You paid $200 for a one-year membership. You underwent a big, complicated background check to prove that you were extra-super-trustworthy.

In exchange, in a few big airports, you got to skip to the front of the TSA line for screening.

Now, you didn't skip the screening itself. You still went through the X-ray machine and had to remove your shoes, belt, pocket contents, laptops, and plastic quart zip-lock bag of toiletries.

You just got to cut to the front of the line.

A few people signed up. In certain airports, it was, indeed, worth actual money to cut to the front of the line.

This wasn't Clear's actual business plan. The actual business plan was that Clear would do detailed background checks on travelers, who would then be trusted to bypass security completely because they were extra-super-trustworthy

When TSA rejected the whole idea of skipping the security check and only allowed fly-clear users to just move to the front of the security check line; still leaving the requirement of a security check mandatory; Clear continued with their initial plan --- which was to charge money for their service and continue to do detailed background checks on all their users before they registered them.

Joel describes the stupidity rather articulately:

At this point, and here's the interesting part, at this point, a rational businessperson would say, "Well, does the Clear idea still make sense if we can’t actually let you skip the screening?"

OK, maybe it still makes sense to charge to skip to the front of the line. Maybe there's a business model in that.

In that case, though, why did they still do background checks? It doesn't make any sense.

The environment changed. It turns out that Clear's business model of prescreening wasn't going to be possible. But they kept doing it anyway. What kind of organizational dysfunction does it take to completely ignore the changed circumstances and keep at a money-losing business?

Joel ends the post with a note of wisdom and sarcasm:

What's even funnier is that Clear could probably have been profitable if they had just skipped the one unnecessarily stupid part of their business model: the detailed background checks on all their customers.

Nobody at Clear did any thinking.

They had a business model, the business model wasn't actually possible, everybody knew it, and they still plugged away at it. Thoughtless optimism. I don't know whether to salute them or laugh.

I find these stories really fascinating because based on the little facts that we as outsiders are privy to; these stories allow us to do black-box-investigations into huge colossal fu@#kups-ups orchestrated by smart people who had the means and the measures to organize fu@#kups of this magnitude.

Joel does his fascinating and thought provoking analysis of the story and comes to a simple logical conclusion --- Nobody at clear did any thinking.

Take that analysis one step forward and you realize that thoughtless optimism in real life; isn't as simple as a team of lousy-thoughtless-bozos coming together; moving into a dark cave and writing random software after they have lost all touch with reality.

Put simply; thought-less optimism is a slow process that happens over time; and by the time it takes it's toll on your organization; your organization; in all probabilities; has already lost the sight of the stupidity that surrounds it.

While it is easy to conclude that everyone working at Fly-Clear was a bozo indulging in thoughtless optimism; my guess; is that like any other typical startup out there Fly-Clear had its bunch of builders, story-tellers and whiners.

Now; if you assume that Fly-Clear was a decent startup like any others with an idea and an implementation --- it makes you wonder what got them from the great-fun-filled-start-up days to a miserable shutdown.

Multiple possibilities exist.

Maybe the leadership at Fly-Clear was too arrogant to consider the idea of surrendering; giving-up and starting something else.

Maybe they started off with smart and talented employees who lacked the spine to come out and announce that the king was in fact, naked.

Maybe the young and smart employees in the corridors of Fly-Clear spoke their mind but then decided to hibernate while the folks higher up in the pecking order could not care less.

Maybe just one senior vice-president high up in the pecking order at Fly-Clear believed that he could still get TSA to agree at skipping the security checks and then all those background checks they did would suddenly become appropriate.

Sometimes you need a team of monkeys to turn a project into a failure or shut-down an organization; sometimes; just one monkey left un-sedated is enough to bring an organization to a shut-down.

Maybe it was just mitigated speech and complete in-ability to accept; that the whole idea of continuing background checks; even after TSA refusing to skip the security check; was; as a matter of fact; fu@#ked up that brought them where they are today.

Maybe; and here is the creepy part; maybe it was all of the above in small dozes which were barely noticeable.

While it is easy to read stories of failure and discard them as --- Oh-they-were-stupid-we-are-not --- why these stories of failure with very little forensic evidence to base your analysis on; are still useful --- is because they show the level of fu@#kup-ups some decently intelligent teams; sometimes even having a few really smart people; are capable of orchestrating.

Remember; the problems that eventually cause your project or your organization to fail are much more subtle than we think.

Every time you read a story of failure; take a deep hard look at your organization; your team and your project.

Random acts of stupidity might be happening; really slowly; around you; right now as you read this.

Being consciously aware of the fact and knowing that a fu@#kup as big as some of these glamorous fu@#kups could be cooking right in the corridors of your organization is your only chance at avoiding these fu@#kups.

When you are on the look-out for stupidity in your very own project, team or organization; keep your eyes open dear reader; because total random stupidity is not usually very loud and clear.

It all begins with one isolated act; and then it grows from there --- usually in small doses and unannounced till it becomes big enough to cause your entire organization to go-down; without any prior warning.

Next time you look around you and see what is going on in your project, team or organization; keep your eyes open; really wide.

I wish you good luck.

Note: This article is a part of a Work In Progress Book. To Read connected articles read the Builders At Work category of this blog.