Elisabeth Hendrickson just put up a reminder of her 2002 talk “Why Are My Pants On Fire?” – It is a quick but interesting read – here.
Please, go read the talk, then come back. I’ve got some spoilers, and I want you to develop your own opinion of the talk before I share them.
Again, the presentation is here.
Now Scroll Down.
Matt’s Commentary Follows
I am of a divided mind about this talk. First of all, all we have is the PDF, so we don’t know what she actually said. Elisabeth doesn’t just read powerpoints, she tells compelling stories. So, reading the PDF is only getting part of the story. That said …
On the one hand, I think it’s a list of blindingly obvious things that you learn in an intro to quality 101 class. “Don’t go into panic mode”, “Don’t reward people who do a crappy job and work late to make up for it”, and so on. We all know this is true. Du-uhhh. Thanks, Lizzy, really.
THEN AGAIN …
Very few companies actually _act_ like this is true. That is to say, we know it, but we don’t do it.
In the past four years, I’ve known multiple companies that said “We gotta get us some of this quality thing like them Toyota Guys”, so they hire a VP of Corporate Quality. Then he makes them mad by telling the company to change, it doesn’t change, and … six month’s later, the VP is gone. Maybe he left, was fired, was asked to leave, it doesn’t really matter much – he isn’t there any more, and the company is still in crisis mode.
I have heard it said that the best moral teachers don’t tell us anything really new; instead they remind us of the truth that is written on our heart.
So obvious or not, more people need to be giving talks like Elisabeth’s; it is making us a more healthy industry. What’s more, her talk was risky, gutsy, and hard-to-give – it would have been much easier to give some talk on “Five Core Metrics” or BusinessIntellegence or pick-your-buzzword.
I think she deserves a good bit of credit.
Finally, there is a risk in the PDF that she probably addresses in the talk, but we don’t have the audio. When people say “Don’t reward heroics, reward stability”, they often lose track of the reality that many of the hardest, most interesting, and most profitable problems are unstable.
There are a number of math proofs, for example, that are hundreds of years old that will generate millions of dollars when they are solved. Around the world, math profs are slaving away at them. Ask a prof when he is going to solve an interesting problem like that, and he’ll look at you funny.
I think having heroes is fine; you just want them to reliable instead of martyrs. Don’t ask your heroes to work 80-hour weeks to take insane projects that are not well thought out and hit an unreasonable date. Don’t ask them to solve organizational problems that are your responsibility. Instead, ask your heroes to reliably solve problems that normal people cannot solve, in a way that doesn’t beat them out or burn them up. (I suppose this needs more thought; more to come.)