Tackling Impossible Projects

There was one time one of the files used in building a report was corrupted. In most cases this would be an easy fix: e-mail the relevant IT person in charge of this file and get him or her to send the corrected file over. But there was a small problem: we needed this report to be sent out within the next few hours, but this person lived half a globe and multiple time zones away.

So I had to work on a local fix.

The very first thing I had to do was this: to decide that I would work on the fix. I cannot tell you how important this step was because I was this close (holding up thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart) to not trying to fix it at all.

When I first realised the data wasn’t correct, I started immediately thinking about was what exactly the data was (Was it essential to the report? Was it time-sensitive? What information did it convey?) and how I might salvage the situation. I dug through memories of past events trying to figure out if this had happened before and if so what was done then. I figured that this exact situation was new, and that that best I could do was figure out if similar situations had occurred (yes) and see if approaches to those situations could be applied to this one as well (no).

All this time, the thought that I wouldn’t/couldn’t be faulted for failing to provide the numbers on time kept presenting itself to me. It was extremely tempting to just say it couldn’t be done and call it a day (because frankly the fix was, intuitively, “too difficult”). But if there’s one thing I hate it’s giving up before I’d actually had a good go at it.

Which brings me to the very important second thing I did: to convince myself that if I was going to go through with this, I’d sure as hell believe that it was possible to do. Since I was going to go through with trying to fix this damn thing, it wasn’t going to help continuing to think it was impossible, right? (Yup, it’s my version of the four-minute mile.)

So with these two things out of the way I pushed ahead.

In the end, within a couple of hours after planning my route of attack and plowing through a programming fog of war that descended early on (where we’re always just one step away from declaring the exercise more trouble than it was worth), the fix was complete. Virtual celebratory drinks were passed all around, and Asia had another good reporting day. On time. On target. World peace.

A lesson on tackling impossible projects

What I found was that the fix was surprisingly easier than I’d expected. (Granted, everything’s easy on hindsight.) And the hardest part was really taking that first step, telling myself that (as in Seth Godin’s words) I was going to ship today and not tomorrow.

And you know what really stoked my fire on this fix? That I managed to use high school algebra to sort out several equations in my queries (and I thought it had no real world value, silly me).

So the next time you start thinking a project’s impossible: stop, take a deep breath, and think hard about it’s impossibility. Is it really impossible, or merely impossible to do easily? Don’t take the easy way out, because one day there may not be one, and you’d be left unprepared.

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