In the present economic straits, even some of the most robust corporations have just now begun to start climbing up out of the embers. Of the many books on the subject that have appeared, Jim Collins’sHow the Mighty Fall, captures the act of collapse from a systems point of view. Written actually before our present recession, Collins and his team discretized corporate collapse into distinct phases, some survivable, some irrecoverable.
Many of these underlying principles have analogous examples to our careers as engineering professionals. In comparison, Collins’s five stages overlap very well with how one rises in one’s career, how one grows one’s reputation based on results and excellence, and also, how it can all be lost in a millisecond. Think of this re-application of Collins’s corporate failure prevention strategy as a durability-based addendum to Richard Nelson Bolles’s famously popularWhat Color is Your Parachute?career development guide; that is, now that you know what career path you’re destined for, what preventative measures or indicators can you apply in order to ensure your that your parachute is a robust one—one that can slow or altogether prevent a personal professional collapse? How can we re-frame the fall of companies to that of individuals, to understand how no one is immune, no one is “too big to fail,” no one is too smart to fall into professional ruin?
Stage I: Hubris Born of Success
You’re a successful early- or mid-stage engineer and you’re getting positive reviews and broad-based support. Your client list is strong and your first several contracts are a tidy collection of home runs. In these situations, complacent success can often evolve into expectation of success, sometimes unjustified. Personal complacency can allow the ego to start making excuses for the lack of results; overconfidence replaces hard data.
Stage II: Undisciplined Pursuit of More
In the engineering world, there is certainly such thing as too much, too fast. Even our NSPE Code of Ethics, in Section II.2 indicates that the promise of success or opportunity should not blind individuals from accepting work that is beyond their abilities, particularly from the perspective of time or professional expertise. Taking on too many clients in private practice or raising your hand for every single project that comes along in industry allows for more chances of failure rather than more chances of success. This is not to say individuals should not be aggressive and tireless in pursuing and stretching personal abilities, but understanding one’s personal capacity and its limits for good work is just as important a factor.
Stage III: Denial of Risk and Peril
We live in an unpredictable world, but one aspect of the exhaustive analytical nature of engineering work is that at the end of the day, we are trained as engineers to ask, what does the data really tell us? Denying gaps, loopholes, or inconsistencies in data, taking chances because of deadlines, downplaying the risk involved to the public we serve, can all be very dangerous, yet self-imposed blinders. This comes from allowing all aspects of a project to be a means to an end—completing the contract, closing out an exhausting program, meeting a deadline. This denial of process risk then leads to a risk in damaging one’s career and for some, even ending it.
Stage IV: Grasping for Salvation
When one’s career is in a tailspin, every solution seems like a good solution for reversing the situation. Data gets interpreted in ways it otherwise never would have been while under sane conditions. Rules that can be bent will be torqued to the point of figurative mechanical fatigue. Project leaders begin blaming technicians, auditors, other functions, everyone but themselves as a last attempt to recover what little fragments of their credibility that remain. In Collins’s study, many leaders resorted to pointing fingers at everyone except themselves.
According to Collins, this stage is the last point that one can halt the fall and still save oneself, albeit accompanied by a long, hard road of recovery. Accept personal accountability and return to the principles that brought one into Stage I to begin with: that success for clients and for the business first originated in solid, grounded results and level headed decision making guided by good data.
In the professional poker world, grasping for salvation is referred to as “going on tilt.” This means making decisions blindly, absolving oneself of all aspects of strategy, patience, or responsibility, and watching futilely as one’s chip stack diminishes.
Don’t go on tilt.
Stage V: Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death
A macabre as Collins’s title for this stage may sound, it is, in essence, the absolute end of one’s career. One’s credibility is completely destroyed because personal risks, personal gain, or unsupported analyses took the place of the best interests of the client or consumer. This is perhaps the career equivalent of what thermodynamicists call “heat death”: the lowest point of energy a body or system is capable of reaching without any other energetic input, the end of a cycle of success and growth. The best way to prevent Stage V is to start by treading carefully while in Stage I.
In the professional world, strategies for success are the engines of our innovation. But understanding the possibilities of our failures are equally important. Pull hard on the rip-cord, let the parachute open, and plan the landing, knowing it will be some time before one might return to the summit, but that such a possibility is inspiration enough to re-think, re-motivate, re-invent.
Design a better parachute.
We’re engineers, after all.
Published February 1, 2010 by Austin Lin
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.
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