#025 - Persistence and the payoff
Welcome to Issue #025 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
✍️ Insights: That fine line between persistence as a superpower and as self-sabotage.
🤔 Made me think: A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept.
👨💻 Worth checking out: World of the snow leopard.
That fine line between persistence as a superpower and as self-sabotage.
I’m blindly crawling through a makeshift tunnel. Around me, people shout and scream. An icy blast of cold water suddenly drenches me from above; then something sticky yet spicy squirts into my face.
I begin to wonder if coming here was still a good idea.
Finally, I emerge into the light. Less like Andy Dufresne escaping from prison in Shawshank Redemption. More like some dazed and confused foreigner, wondering what the heck was happening, and what was next.
I was in Singapore and being initiated into Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Hall 9 residence. Along with the rest of the local students and a few of my fellow foreign exchange students.
But getting there almost never happened.
18 months prior, I was in the midst of my 1st year of my undergraduate degree in Scotland. Befriending the Singaporean students who were on exchange at my university, I was inspired by how the experience changed them for the better. I hadn’t considered studying abroad for my 3rd year but they showed me why I should.
Frustratingly, all the options offered to me were universities either in the US, Canada, or Australia. All excellent, but none in Asia-Pacific. When I asked why, I was told it was because no-one had asked.
Rather than take the easy choice and go on an established programme, I persisted in wanting to go to Asia-Pacific.
Eventually, I got permission but I had to sort it out myself. That started with finding the university I wanted to attend - which ended up being NTU. Then, everything between getting its academic programme validated by my faculty all the way through to organising the exchange itself down to the last detail.
As onerous and time-consuming as that was, the real challenge was that I had to complete two years of university in one year. That's right, I had to complete my studies in double time before I was allowed to go. All in addition to the administrative and logistical burden of personally organising this exchange.
None of that was ideal. In fact it was immensely stressful and, at times, I genuinely didn’t think that I would cope with all the assignments let alone pass all my exams. I did wonder if going to a Canadian university would just have been easier.
But I persisted because studying in Asia Pacific was important to me. I lived my entire life in the UK and had never even been to the side of the world my parents were from. It was time to correct that void.
That year in Singapore turned out to be the start of one of the best years of my life.
My persistence turned out to my superpower. It got me to reject the status, to rise up to the challenges that arose, and to keep pushing through even when I thought I would falter.
Best of all, because I persisted, NTU became an exchange option for the students in the years below me.
The business analyst as the “fixer”
Being persistent is key to being a good business analyst (BA).
In our role as BAs, we do play the role of “fixer” as we’re often required to tackle complex and difficult problems with stakeholders who either ignore us or even actively work against us. In my 20+ years, it’s usually working through people issues though, every now and again, it’s battling through severe system issues or dirty data.
On one project, it was the client’s director that my project manager (PM) was exasperated with. She was so fed up that their working relationship was barely on speaking terms. So I effectively became our project’s liaison and had the fun job of dealing with his constant micro-management of us.
In a contradictory way, his micro-management took up so much time and effort that he was jeopardising our delivery. Even though he thought that he was doing everything he could to ensure a successful delivery. It was easy to see why the wider team, not just my PM, found him hard to work with.
There is a tendency in consulting to accept a bad situation as a bad situation. We’ve even coined a phrase for it: “we are where we are”. But, that’s just making the lazy choice to not even attempt to improve the situation.
That’s where persistence comes in - to keep going even though it’s a chore, it’s thankless, and possibly even quixotic.
I’d love to tell you that there was a magical movie moment when I suddenly broke through to the client director and he was a changed man thereafter. I’d love to tell you that there was one killer technique that I used to win him over. I’d love to to tell you that I knew that I was always going to win him over in the end.
I’d be lying if I did.
The reality was that it was a slow grind as I tried, failed, and adapted my way to earning his trust. Things I tried that I persisted with included going out of my way not to avoid him, being upfront with him even if it made us look bad, and staying optimistic with him no matter what. Even if it felt like I was shouting into the void and getting nothing back.
But little by little, he did start to open up to me. It started off as little off-hand remarks in the preamble to a workshop, then quick chats whilst waiting for the lift or grabbing a coffee. Eventually, he started to slowly share his concerns and, importantly, the why.
By piecing together what he told me and by building up rapport with him, I found out that he was micro managing us because he was “fighting the last war”.
The company that co-owned us were also working there, though on a different project. He had been let down by them and left in an embarrassing position. So, he equated what they had done to him with what we were likely to do to him and acted to ensure that he wouldn’t be blindsided again.
Once he realised that just because they owned us didn’t mean that we were like them, he stopped micro-managing us. Now that he had faith in us, his working relationships with all of us immeasurably improved. So much so that whenever we did hit a problem, he went out of his way to defend us.
As others hadn’t persisted in their efforts with the client director, they had to endure what they didn’t resolve. If only they had carried on a little longer, they might’ve started to see some green shoots of progress. Instead, they reduced him to a label and grudgingly dealt with him as a pain.
Because I chose to persist, even if it felt like a fool’s errand and without any guarantee of success, I gave myself and my team a chance of changing that narrative. A change that paid off handsomely for us.
Some you win, some you lose
Being persistent doesn’t mean you keep trying to do same thing time and time again.
You iterate, you change tactics, and you change the variables. But, there are situations where that’s simply not enough. It might be you, or them, or something that you’ll never know about.
The question I hear you asking is when do you continue and when do you stop?
Sadly, I can’t give you one definitive answer to that as it’s so dependent on the context of the situation. Not to mention that we each have our styles, preferences, and constraints. So, what’s valid for me may not be valid for you (and vice versa).
What I can give you is the rule of thumb that’s worked well for me. As always, your mileage may vary.
Working on a politically charged project packed with alpha males, I was trying and failing in getting them on-side. I was constantly running into so many brick walls that I felt like I was Wile E. Coyote. Suffering as he does as each trap backfires in his futile attempts to catch the Road Runner.
But months into this project I still persisted. I was determined to make this work somehow. That is until a red line was crossed and I stopped.
In a tense meeting, one alpha male was so angry and so determined to make his point that he threw a stapler across the conference table. It wasn’t the fact that he didn’t hit anyone or that he even threw it in the first place that crossed my red line. It was the fact that no-one called him out on it.
In fact, no-one said anything. The meeting just carried on. As if it hadn’t happened and somehow I, as the only external person, was the only one who had seen it happen.
I resigned from that client even though the project was unfinished.
For me, persistence is always a choice and that choice is centred on the payoff you’re expecting. My rule of thumb is to persist when your motivation for that payoff is more for positive reasons than for negative reasons. In other words, it’s time to let go when your driving force turns to obstinacy, a compulsion to be in control, or simply because you want to win at all costs.
On that project, I realised that there was a good chance that I was going fail given the toxicity of the individuals involved. That my persistence would now be primarily driven by my fear of failure as an external consultant. But, I let the client go because if I didn’t my well-being would’ve been harmed and that payoff isn’t worth any client.
Being persistent is powerful but you have to find your own line between it being a superpower and it being self-sabotaging.
🤔 Made me think
A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept.
With persistence, you can catch up to somehow who's ahead of you.
Amplifi’s analysis of the 4 million podcasts from April 2021 to late July 2022) shows some startling insights:
Nearly 50% (1,905,090) of podcasts only had 3 or few episodes.
Only 32% (1,338,631) had 10+ episodes.
Less than 4% (155,764) had 10+ episodes and had produced an episode in the past week.
It shows that if you can be that little bit more persistent to get more than 3 episodes out, you’ve already ahead of ~50% of podcasts. If you can stay consistent and get to 10 episodes, you’re in the top third of podcasts. And you can get there even though you staring after them.
I’ve applied that approach to this newsletter. You can apply it to getting fit, saving money, or whatever it is that you want to achieve.
“The best time to start was yesterday. The next best time is now.”
🧑💻Worth checking out
🔗 World of the snow leopard.
One of the key lessons I learnt in photography is to be patient for the right moment and to be persistent in getting the shot.
Nowhere is that more true than in wildlife photography as the description of his image illustrates:
Sascha captured this image during a three-year bait-free camera-trap project high up in the Indian Himalayas. He has always been fascinated by snow leopards, not only because of their incredible stealth but also because of their remote environment, making them one of the most difficult large cats to photograph in the wild.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is currently showing at the Natural History Museum in London until 02 July. You can still book tickets or view the online gallery. If you can, do see this in person.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts for me.
Sometimes, it helps to step away from something for a while.
I work in software, and there are often times when I'm stuck trying to figure out why something's not working. I'd keep persisting into the wee hours of the night, but I just can't figure it out. Partly because I'm exhausted.
But then I get some rest, or take a walk outside in the fresh air, or get a warm, relaxing shower, then all of a sudden, a solution might come to mind.