Today's Reading

He had called a morning strategy meeting with his top executives. Their software release date was May 1, an easy four months away—something they'd been hard at work on for a year now. It was one of many meetings to make sure this project was all sewn up, in the bag, and done on time.

But the atmosphere in the room was tense. There was a distinct lack of post-holiday camaraderie, and everyone sat quietly, greeting each other with just the most basic professional courtesy.

"So," he said, once the team had settled in their seats around the conference table. "First of May. How are we looking?"

The rush to reply was anything but a stampede. No one said a word.

Don't all jump in at once, he was about to say, but he stopped himself. The wooden expressions around the table told him this was not the time for a joke.

"Okaaay...," Ethan said. "Let's do it this way. Scale of one to ten, ten says we coast through without breaking a sweat, one says we flat out don't make it." He looked at his COO. "Jenna? Give me a number."

Jenna hesitated before responding. "Seven," she replied.

Ouch. He'd expected a ten, a nine at worst. That's why he'd called on Jenna first—she was one of the most capable executives he had ever met. A VP by thirty, Jenna was laser-focused and brought a positive, relentless determination to every project she handled.

Ethan looked at Zach, the director of software. You'd never know from his unassuming personality that Zach had started college at sixteen and gotten his master's by twenty-two. "Zach?"

Looking down at the table, Zach slowly replied. "Um...eight?"

Ethan would have felt better if Zach hadn't phrased it as a question. "Iris?" he asked in an uneasy tone.

Iris hesitated, looking at her hands in her lap. She was the lead UX designer, in charge of user interface of the finished product. She was silent long enough that a few people shifted uneasily in their chairs. Just as Ethan was about to say something, Iris looked up and took a deep breath, bracing herself.

"Ethan, I have to be honest," she said. "This is really difficult for me to say, but I just can't go higher than a three."

A three? It took a moment for Iris's response to register. Just barely above "we flat out don't make it"? Scanning the room and the rest of the team, Ethan noticed that Jenna seemed to have relaxed, and Zach was hesitantly looking around at the other faces. Not knowing what else to do, Ethan cleared his throat and turned toward Dom, chief technology officer, parked at the far end of the conference table.

"Dom?" Ethan hoped for a miracle. Dominick was known for his incredible efficiency. As the person tracking overall design and system integration, his view carried extra weight.

Dom sighed. His frank expression spoke volumes. "I'm going to have to agree with Iris. Give it a three."

This bombshell stunned everyone into silence, which stretched on for several very uncomfortable moments until Jenna spoke. "I'm really sorry, Ethan, but they're right," she said, looking directly at him. "I have to change my seven to a four."

That was the moment it really sank in, the moment Ethan's stomach tightened. The release date was in serious jeopardy, not to mention his weekend plans.

After Iris's revelation, Ethan completed the circuit around the table. No one ventured lower than the apocalyptic three, but there was nothing over a six from the rest. Not a single ten from the group. Still, the worst hit had been from the company optimist, Jenna. I have to change my seven to a four. How had his COO not known until now that Iris and Dominick had such serious misgivings about their progress? How had Ethan himself not known? How had his team gone from having things clearly in hand to a situation that justified pure panic?

For the next twenty minutes, Ethan led the group through an ad hoc pep talk, hoping he was offering up more than be-positive platitudes. But as everyone filed out of the conference room, Ethan could feel the tension linger. Jenna was the last to leave.

"Hey Jenna, do you have a minute?" Ethan asked. He wasn't sure if it was anxiety or a need to take action—any action—that made him blurt out the question. Probably a little of both. He just knew he needed to touch base with someone from the team, and as COO, Jenna usually had the pulse of the whole organization.

"Sure," she said, but Ethan could tell Jenna was as eager as everyone else had been to escape.

"I have to say," Ethan began, "I was not expecting this meeting to go so..." he trailed off. Badly did not seem an adequate word to express what had just happened. "I feel like I've missed something big if we're this behind. Any, ah, insight?" He was not sure what to say.

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