No Backstop

In teams, in organizations, in families, there are certain roles that are played.

“Are played,” which is different from “roles that we play,” because the roles exist independently of their players. They exist to be filled, whether by the person filling them today or by somebody else.

Roles like:

The one played by the person who makes sure we keep moving forward fast enough.

The one played by the person who keeps us safe.

The one played by the person who expressed doubt, asks questions, makes sure we look at things from all angles.

The one played by the person who speaks up.

The one played by the person who lurks on the sidelines.

And the one played by the person who acts as a backstop.

The backstop role is essential: it’s the role of making sure everything is good enough to ship. This isn’t just about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. It’s things like making sure the story hangs together, that it connects to the big picture, that it’s on brand and that whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Sometimes, the person playing the backstop role really does have more experience, context and knowledge than the person who handed her the “almost finished” product. She’s been here before and can see and do things that others cannot.

But, just as often, the backstop person is just playing that role, because somebody’s got to do it and we’ve gotten used to being able to count on her.

While it’s a great relief to be able to rely on that kind of person, it also presents a risk. The risk is getting used to that role being played by someone else. The risk is teaching ourselves that someone else is going to put themselves on the line, to sit in the client’s shoes and always ask “is this good enough to represent us?”

And then, by definition, we’re not on the line, we’re not the arbiter of good enough, we’re not making the tough calls.

Behaving as if it’s OK to fall, because we have a net, is one way to teach ourselves that falling is OK. And then, day by day, almost imperceptibly, we start to become a person who falls.

The solution, of course, is to act as if there’s no backstop, to practice as if there’s no net.

Nets are essential if you’re on a literal high wire. But since, for most of us, our day-to-day work is rarely life or death, we’re much better off acting as if we didn’t have one, so we practice to putting ourselves on the line.