We're All Curly

2004-10-29 14:56:51

Admittedly, not all of human knowledge and wisdom can be summed up a sequence of short, pithy dictums. But some of it can -- here are couple of principles that I think are rather wise and that I try to live by:

Accidents happen when expectations are violated.

This seems like a restatement of common sense, but take some time to really think about what it means. Traffic accidents are almost always the result of 'violated expectations':

(The only exceptions I can think of off-hand are when people are drunk, asleep, or just plain incompetent behind the wheel).

Ponder the notion that if you set your expectations low enough, your expectations will rarely be violated. This can be a good thing: if you expect a situation to arise, then you've got a shot at avoiding the "accident" part of things.

As a practical example, again using traffic: traffic laws do not exist primarily to enhance the police department's revenues. They're set in place to provide all of us with a mutually agreed upon system of rules that allow us (most of the time) to safely proceed from Point A to Point B. When I go through an intersection on a green light, my expectation is that cross traffic will be stopped on a red light, and so forth. The other day I experienced some near misses because a couple of drivers violated my expectations: one of them by going the wrong way down the road, the other by attempting a right turn while not in the right-most lane. And as much as I can fault them and call 'em father-rapers and so forth, in the end it's my responsibility to keep my butt alive by staying alert for these kinds of "expectation violations".

As much as we try, we'll always be blindsided by The Unexpected, sometimes. But we can try to foresee and avoid accidents.

When a mistake happens, it's usually unproductive to assign blame; instead, it's better to focus on correcting the problem and amending the process that led to the mistake to prevent a recurrence.

I guess it's only human nature that when Something Goes Wrong, we immediately want to know who did it. But does it really do any good?

Example: a work item gets lost.

Larry says "Where's Work Item Delta? I need it by Monday or Moe's gonna kill me."

Curly says "Work Item What?!"

Larry says "I emailed it to you a month ago!"

Curly says "I never got it!"

And now the race is on as Larry and Curly dig frantically through their email folders to determine who dropped the ball. For the sake of discussion, let's say Curly discovers the item in his Inbox -- he overlooked it because someone shot some seltzer down his pants when he hit the Outlook Send / Receive button. And now, of course, he needs to do some fast fancy footwork to save face.

I ask you: is this really productive? Is this how adults accomplish things?

It takes effort on both sides to get past this: Curly needs to have the courage to admit he made a mistake. And Larry needs to accept this -- realizing that we all play Curly from time to time -- and focus not on blame, but on how to close Work Item Delta. Shouting, screaming, mind games, intimidation -- Larry may find temporary solace in them, but he still won't get the work done any faster and keep Moe from hitting him on the head with a hammer and then poking him in the eyes.

Also -- I'm amazed at how often people can't admit a mistake, even when it's not completely their fault. For instance: some work requires the comparison of text in two documents. This isn't the kind of thing you can use grep for; it's more like you pull up Document A and Document B and see if lines 7 and 8 of paragraph 14a subsection 223 chapter 4 agree on their definition of "propeller". Anyone who's ever done something like this can attest to the fact that it is a tedious, mind-numbing, and error-prone task, most especially when it's executed on a single 1024 x 768 (or worse) display.

So am I out of line for suggesting that when someone makes a mistake on this kind of task, the wise course is to examine why the error occurred and to fix things so that it's less likely to happen again? In this particular example, a dual-monitor workstation would seem like a good solution: two documents can be opened and in full view simultaneously.

I mean: it's one thing to say "I screwed up because I got drunk at lunch." That's bad, and it's probably not a good thing to allow an employee to feel comfortable admitting stuff like that. But if someone is making errors because their tools are bad, or because their work environment sucks, then it's time to either improve their tools, improve their environment, or simply learn to accept a higher error rate.