Chocolate bridges

A couple of years ago a Person of Power (PoP) 1)In most cases the PoP has been an executive, but sometimes it’s a department manager with some extra budget or a division manager trying to make a name for themselves. The point is, it’s not someone the team could laugh at and say no to. came to one of my teams and said that our next project was a ridiculous thing that everyone in the room immediately recognized as improbable to achieve. A chocolate bridge.

The chocolate bridge was going to be tremendous, they said. Nobody else in our industry has anything like it, and it’s going to put our name on the map. It’ll impress our investors, change the way we do business, etc. etc. “We’re going to build this chocolate bridge right here on this bend in the river,” they’d say, pointing to a map. “Here’s the amount of traffic we plan to have cross the bridge. It has to handle pedestrians, cars, and trucks. And it has to be 100% made of chocolate.”

Rght away, everyone in the room recognized that you can’t build a bridge over a river out of chocolate, especially a load-bearing bridge, especially in high summer in Philadelphia. The low-tenured or conflict-averse folks in the room started to fidget in their seats. The high-tenure or conflict-seeking people in the room immediately started peppering questions, all of which can be summed up as “what the hell are you thinking?”

As designers and developers we’re all eventually going to be asked to build a chocolate bridge for somebody. The question, then, is when asked to build the impossible, what do you do?

The first step is to recognize that this is a chocolate bridge.  The hallmarks of a chocolate bridge project are:

  1. No one is actually going to be harmed by the success (or failure) of this project. It’s not against the company ethics or your personal ethics (setting aside “I don’t think it’s ethical to waste my time”), no marginalized people will be harmed or potentially harmed, customers won’t be harmed, and the business won’t go under. It’s not ethically questionable to try to build the chocolate bridge.
  2. Chocolate bridges are usually very well funded. Someone is legitimately trying to change the direction of the business with this project and they have the dollars to back it in a way that your standard underfunded maintenance project could only dream of. “We’ll double the size of the team and then we’ll double it again” or “We’re already working to procure X software” or “We’ve signed a contract with Y group” are all hallmarks of a chocolate bridge.
  3. The PoP is hell-bent on building this chocolate bridge and expects everyone to follow along. There is a good chance you will be asked to “get on the bus”, “think outside of the box”, “push the envelope” and other things that mean “I am putting enough money into this project that you should be able to perform miracles and you need to commit to it right the fuck now”. The pitch for a chocolate bridge is usually the exaggeration of used car salesperson mixed with the “buy now and we knock three thousand off the price” pressure of a replacement window salesperson, only worse because this person actually has the power to tell you what to do.
  4. The PoP is absolutely convinced that asking you and your team to build this particular chocolate bridge isn’t a point of fallacy — it’s actually an honor. They wouldn’t ask the lowest performing team in the company to make a chocolate bridge. Heck, they can’t trust the lowest performing team to buy a Hershey bar at the supermarket on time and within budget. But you? Your team is capable of amazing things… amazing things like changing the company by building a chocolate bridge.

Once you know you’re being asked to work on a chocolate bridge, you’ll have to decide how you want to approach the problem.

Usually, people on the team seem to take two paths:

Path A: Get “on board the bus” to build the chocolate bridge, whether it’s enthusiastically or apprehensively, and immediately discuss figuring out where we’re going to hide the rebar so this thing doesn’t fall on its head.

Path B: Fight tooth and nail against the project, trying to get the PoP to see reason, and when that fails, trying to get someone in charge of the PoP to see reason, all the while bitching to everyone who will listen about how a chocolate bridge will never work.

That group on Path B is right, by the way. No chocolate bridge I’ve ever had a hand in building came out looking like the grand plan of its sponsor. Even the most “successful” ones mean long hours of researching architecture and structure and what people really want out of a bridge, figuring out how to disguise rebar and cement as chocolate so the whole thing doesn’t collapse under anyone’s weight, arguing within the team about the best process for building the bridge, and scaling back and scaling back and scaling back until the PoP’s plan for a purely chocolate bridge that would cross the Hudson is more of a chocolate-and-cement footbridge over the local creek.

But being right isn’t enough. No one cancels a chocolate bridge project because someone on the team is gobsmacked that we’re even trying such a ridiculous idea. You can’t talk sense into someone who’s just spent months convincing their own peers to give up some of the company budget to building a bridge out of chocolate. The people on Path B just end up miserable, and end up making everyone else miserable, for 18 months to three years. I know because when I was a little baby UXer I tried that route and it was a mistake.

No, if a chocolate bridge project is going to be killed, it won’t be the folks on Path B who bring about its demise. In fact, it’s way more likely that the folks on Path A will accidentally prove that a pure chocolate bridge in July melts and falls into the swamp six or eight times. When that truly happens, when there’s no way to make that chocolate bridge work, it’ll probably be killed by the PoP’s peers during an executive review.

One out of every three or four chocolate bridges I work on  do turn into a chocolate-and-cement footpath, by the way. In fact, more than one of the ones I thought would never make it are still standing. In some cases it turns out that a chocolate footpath was exactly what the end user needed, and in others it turned out a chocolate footpath taught us so much that we knew how to build the next step in the chocolate architecture that was to follow.

Ultimately, whether the chocolate bridge is cancelled or launched, the time I spend on it allows me to make money and learn something, so it isn’t wasted… it’s just very very chocolatey with a heart of rebar and cement.

If you get “offered the opportunity” to build a chocolate bridge, know this: There will be burnout. You will be facing the impossible with no choice but to hit it. There’s going to be bad days or even bad weeks. If you don’t have to work on a chocolate bridge, honestly, unless that’s your jam, I’d avoid it. But if you don’t have a choice, please take Path A with the rest of us and chip in to build the bridge. Failed plans are hard enough to deal with without someone bitching about them the whole time the bridge is melting.

Notes   [ + ]

1.In most cases the PoP has been an executive, but sometimes it’s a department manager with some extra budget or a division manager trying to make a name for themselves. The point is, it’s not someone the team could laugh at and say no to.