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Friday Philosophy – Do Average to Be a Success March 6, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
22 comments

A few days ago a friend of mine, helifromfinland, tweeted something that exactly matched the topic that I was thinking of doing my next Friday Philosophy on. Heli said:

I am learning to do things well enough, not always perfect. Even writing that sentence feels so wrong but #babysteps ๐Ÿ˜€

That made me smile – I know the feeling myself and I know some people for whom it is all-consuming. It is something that I suspect many people who are active in the oracle community struggle with. We all try and do the best we can at all we do.

In our jobs in I.T what is needed most often is not the perfect solution – or even the best solution we can come up with. It is:

The best solution that achieves the requirement within the timeframe allowed.

I think I was lucky in that the principle of “good enough” was explained to me fairly early on – and in an environment where “good enough” is not usually the prescribed wisdom.

I was at college doing my degree. In academia or school you are usually encouraged to strive for perfection, in the aim of doing the best you can. It seems to me that they don’t teach you what the real world wants. I can’t remember the exact details (it’s almost 3 decades ago!) but I was trying to finish a written assignment in genetics and it was deadline day. I hunted down the professor who had assigned the task and asked if I could have a few more days as I wanted to check up some of the latest papers on it in the library {I know, what a terrible swot {definition – see item two here!} I was}. He did not say no, he did not say yes. Instead he took me into his office and asked me a few questions about the topic and what I had written so far. I think he was checking I had done something rather than was just covering up being lazy. He then asked me what the purpose of the assignment was.

???

I started explaining the topic again but he cut me short. It took him a few attempts I think to get to where he was directing me, which was that it was a task to be completed in a time frame, to show I understood the topic. I was not doing original research, I was not trying to prove anything. It was Just A Task. The Prof then explained to me that his wife was not an academic but worked in industry. She had tasks to do in set time frames and others relied on her doing those tasks on time. She had more work to do than she could easily cope with. The Prof asked me “Should she keep asking for more time do them? Should she only do a few tasks to the best of her ability or most of her tasks to a level that everyone was happy with?” I got his point, but surely in academia the aim is always “as good as you can?”. He felt not and I think he was vexed {meaning, “really pissed off”} that many academics see it that way. There are times you need to do the very best you can; to spend the time to prove your theory; to cover off all the alternatives or caveats to your point; to get the lab result that clearly corroborates your point. But most of the time, you are doing tasks. Stop dithering and do them. It’s more pointed in the commercial world but the academic world is fundamentally the same.

I think he left it to me to decide if I was going to hand the assignment in late or not but I can’t remember what I did (I’ve got my notes from back then, I can probably find out! But I’ve decided this post does not need that level of perfection… ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

I think we can all agree that, especially in a work environment where others are dependent on us doing our bit in a timely manner, it is better to do an acceptable job on time than constantly overrun. It is also better to get most {aiming unrealistically for “all”} of your work done rather than failing to do tasks that then impact on others. Of course, what is acceptable is all relative and there is a time/achievement cost-benefit-analysis in moving up the poor-acceptable-good-excellent-perfect spectrum.

Maybe what defines your skill in a role is how far up the poor-acceptable-good-excellent-perfect spectrum you hit on a regular basis.

The problem is that, for some of us, we are like Heli and we absolutely, totally and utterly want to do a very good job on everything we do. This is an idea that our parents, teachers and society do press upon us in our formative years, after all.

Of course, your employer will want you to do six impossible things this morning but most are happy with 4 good things this morning and would prefer that over 2 excellent things by the end of the day and 4 undone.

I can’t say I’ve always stuck to the principal of limiting a task to the effort or time it deserves – I have a natural tendency to try and do too good{no, complete is a better way to put it} a job or else I go the opposite and don’t do the task justice {or even at all!}, so I really empathise with Heli’s tweet. When I first became a contractor I struggled with doing enough average work to keep the client happy, I was just spending too much time on doing the best I could at one or two tasks. In reality, they just wanted lots of stuff done competently. So my Prof had failed to instill the right attitude in me!

One of the nuances of “good enough”, and my point about getting {nearly} all your work done, is that it is almost an impossible thing to achieve. If you get all your tasks done, what happens? Yes, more work comes your way. Especially as our working society has gone in exactly the opposite direction to both what many predicted in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s and also against what we, the workers, would want. The plan was we would all be working, but working fewer hours and days for similar pay. But as most of us can testify, we seem to be asked to do more and more. It’s a topic for a different day but, basically, we are all screwed by the desire by our employers to get more out of each one of us to maximise profit – more work done by the same number or less people is reducing staff pay in relation to output. The reward for getting all your work done on time is more work will be allocated to you.

Another nuance is one I know I have gone on about before. If you do a job, especially an unpleasant or hard job, very well – what is your reward? You get to do the job for ever. Or you get the next horrible, hard job to do. The reward for exceeding expectations is to set the bar that people will want you to hit ever higher and higher and higher

But you do want some recognition and some promotions.

So, for goodness sake, do just an acceptable-good job of a slightly-more-than-is-reasonable number of tasks and don’t do the next horrible job you are handed beyond expectation. And if you forget yourself and go and do the horrible task well, remember to make an utter mess of the next one – you must stop that expectation bar rising!

The final nuance is perhaps the hardest one, and the one I still struggle with despite someone explaining it to me almost 30 years ago. Some tasks really do need to be at the brilliant end of the spectrum and some are fine at being at the average or even poor end. If your role is as a DBA, your backup/recovery protocols need to be towards the brilliant. You may hope to never need to do disaster recovery but one day you will and if it goes wrong, expect to be fired. However, tuning a batch report to run in under an hour? Usually, you are asked for an ideal run time that the business does not need. Under 2 hours is enough and you have a SHED load of other tasks. No one needs the report in under a minute. You should do an average job, even if your soul dies a little in doing so.

As I mentioned above, as a contractor I initially struggled at times to do lots-of-average-work. As a consultant the requirements and expectations are a little different. You are expected to do excellent, come up with something the regular team has not. It’s nice if it is achieved quickly but heck, hard takes time :-). Average (ie what the regular team would come up with) is NOT acceptable (*NB Not always true). I personally find that the consultant paradigm suits me more, my character and working method is more suited to a slower, more considered approach. I really need to get to be a proper consultant…

So the take home message on how to get on in the working world is:

Be just above average at tasks.

Do 80% of your work but back pedal if you hit 90%.

If you accidentally do a magnificent job, mess up the next one.

Occasionally, only occasionally, let rip and blow them all away with your brilliance.

And please let me know how the above works out for you ๐Ÿ™‚

***

Quick update – a recent xkcd panel that makes the point well ๐Ÿ™‚