The Magic Answer

Every good geek (and Google) knows that the answer to life and everything is 42.  This is a famous line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

But it seems like there is a more sensible magic answer: In order for things to go well, there needs to be a high level of specification.

Yes, ambiguity kills.  In fact, it literally kills according to a study by Spear and Schmidhofer that was recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  The authors found that high performing organizations achieve results “by specifying how work is expected to proceed—who will do what for whom, with what purpose, when, where, and how—before work is actually done. Then, when anything contrary to expectations occurs, it is immediately identified as a problem.

Medication errors may be one of the most critical examples where a high level of specification is needed.  But, I run into this everywhere.

This year I brought in consultant Kevin Behr to analyze our IT Operations.  The single most significant finding is the IT Operations in my organization suffers because of a lack of definition.  When everyone is left to define how work gets done there is bound to be mistakes and mis-connects.  Our organization needs to dedicate time to evaluating what we are doing and how it needs to be done.  All work must be EXPLICITLY defined, otherwise talented people (like I am blessed with) can’t achieve their full potential.

I believe my organizations do a superb job of running large and complex projects.  That is because we spend so much time defining the right process, then learning from our mistakes and re-defining our methodologies.

Job descriptions are the same way.  If you are not explicit about a person’s role and what they are expected to produce you should expect to get something unsatisfactory.

How many times have your interfaces gone through multiple re-writes because you did not have a high degree of specification when you started working on them?

Is this so basic that it is not worth a blog post?  If so, why do I see so little definition of work or processes to a high level of specification?

One thought on “The Magic Answer

  1. This definitely deserved a post, and actually, from my own corporate challenges, this is rather a growing issue.

    I see very strong indicators during project definition and initiation that will deliberately push the risk to make a short term saving. I see this as a quick win to look good on budget but deferring the problems to a later stage, and similar to your post “I am not Google” displace the responsibility to somebody else, a direct report or a development team for example.

    This is a wide trend across all industries except where lives are directly involved or affected (to some extand of course as we can debate about it).

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