The Foundatons of Mediocrity: Foundation Number III:
By Jim and Michele McCarthy
Jim McCarthy: Welcome!
Michele McCarthy: Welcome to the McCarthy Show.
Jim: Glad to see you. Thanks for downloading us, bouncing down that ever so spotty DSL. That’s always a problem. I prefer cable these days for the download speed. But I got here, I’m fine, not to worry.
Michele: Going through the wireless is like the transporter on Star Trek.
Jim: Yeah wireless is nice, but I can’t get as far as I need it. I got to stay around the house.
Jim: But I’ll take whatever modality you give me in order to reconstitute myself as an MP3 for your listening pleasure. And we are the middle of our yet to be famous series:
Michele: Foundations of mediocrity.
Jim: Yes. Foundations of mediocrity. And Michele, what are the four foundation stones of mediocrity?
Michele: Well Jim, there’s budgeting.
Jim: The budget. Right, we have talked about the budget.
Michele: There’s scheduling.
Jim: We have not talked about scheduling.
Michele: There’s reorgs.
Jim: We have talked about reorgs and given a solution. Yet mediocrity is not your call.
Michele: And there’s the quarterly analyst meeting.
Jim: Right, it must somehow seem like so small in significance, and so overstated as to almost not even belong as it’s so mediocre.
Michele: I know I was almost going to say that what I find most annoying: the analyst meeting. It’s like, ‘you’re doing what?’.
Jim: Let’s save it up. I want to save up my energy for the analyst meeting, because it’s so crazed. And such institutionalized folly and madness.
Michele: And it’s the youngest too, maybe that’s why.
Jim: Well, it may be. Yeah, it’s not a mature pathology. But it is a profound one. What it lacks in duration and in durance it makes up for in toxicity. The analyst meeting. The whole company goes crazy cooking the box. For about three weeks. So let’s not talk about that one. That one’s like desert. It’s best delayed.
Michele: I agree.
Jim: The bread and butter, the one that most of us really commit our mindlessness to, is the schedule. Scheduling your project, that can absorb almost all of your craziness. And with a single fell swoop. It can paralyze your thinking, blunt your imagination, break your creativity and reduce your procreativity to nothing. The schedule is a potent nullifier. It is the queen of all mediocrity fountains.
Michele: In fact, if companies only did scheduling out of all the foundations, they could probably achieve all their mediocrity goals, simply with scheduling.
Jim: Well, certainly they could hit the mainstream level of mediocrity that way. You wouldn’t want to be too pronouncedly mediocre. In any case, mediocre is a sort of thing that more of it makes it less. But anyway, the excesses and properties of mediocrity shall be a topic of another amazingly amusing podcast.
Michele: So what am I doing about scheduling?
Jim: What do we have against that schedule?
Michele: So maybe my main thing is: the people are willing to proceed as if they can look into a crystal ball about the future. As if they can plan out the future. As if they can control the future. It’s the control that really gets to me. It bugs me because it’s a false belief, it’s not true, you can’t control the future, and it’s just so destructive of creativity, teamwork, quality of teamwork and spontaneity and interaction between each other. It’s just an energy zapper, like an energy sink.
Jim: Well, pretending like the schedule is meaningful; I just love that, really. If it weren’t for the ultimate evil that results, I’d say we should do schedule all day long because it is the most amusing and ridiculous way to spend your time. You can imagine that if it weren’t so dark, it would be a gas.
Jim: You have a great line that you said one time and I’ve been using it ever since. One of the problems with the schedule is it gives you the idea that you can take that long.
Jim: And that is the bad, dark side of the schedule. Most things can be done pretty quickly if you’re not talking about them, if you’re actually doing them.
Michele: If you have the intention to get it done, you can get it done.
Jim: What would be a better question than, how long is this going to take me? We’ll see if we can answer this pop quiz. I know the answer. What’s the best question besides, how long until you’re done?
Michele: How fast can we do it?
Jim: Same question. Beep. The right answer is “Why isn’t it done now?”
Michele: Right, that’s what I mean when I say, “How fast can we do it?” [chuckles]
Jim: Well, yeah.
Michele: That’s the mindset I’m looking for.
Jim: But as soon we go into the how, the question is how long.
Michele: How do we do it?
Jim: That’s the schedule.
Michele: Well right, I tend to say how can we do it tomorrow? How can we do it today?
Jim: Yeah, why isn’t this done?
Michele: I don’t want to be tying in years, months. Like how can we do it right now?
Jim: Give me the list of things that stops it from being done, right now.
Michele: Right, and I call those the blocks. What is blocking us from doing it right now?
Jim: Well, from having it being done right now. [chuckles]
Michele: Yeah, it’s not a big difference.
Jim: Yeah, you bet. It’s my idea versus yours.
Jim: Yeah. I like it when they smell like me.
Michele: You got me, Jim.
Jim: I like it when they smell like me.
Jim: The Jimishness of an idea, as far as I’m concerned, is one of its key attributes. But anyway, yeah, exactly, like that is a good question, right? Why isn’t it done now? How can we get it done tomorrow?
Jim: Those are good questions they ask. And instead, what we say is, “Are we on schedule?”
Jim: And we discuss that. And we don’t know whether we are on schedule because we made up the schedule… in one meeting, I remember, I think you asked the question. We had a program manager up there, and we were having a program, and they were talking about schedules and stuff like that, and you go, “Where did you get that date?” From Jeff, hmm.
Michele: I don’t remember.
Jim: Jeff Henshaw.
Jim: And he goes, “From my ass?”
Jim: But with a question mark at the end. And I learned…
Michele: And see I hate…
Jim: I’m not you… I just went…
Michele: Well that’s good that he told the truth.
Jim: Well yeah, he was among friends, right? I mean, that’s where all these dates come from, you know. Or like now when they go, “Let’s buffer the schedule.” So they [deep voice], “Oh, isn’t that clever of you.”
Jim: Yes well, go ask the person who is working, how long is it going to take you, and then we’ll double it for good measure and safety.
Michele: When you buffer the schedule, you are just saying it’s going to take that much longer because people will take as long as you say it can take. They won’t make it go shorter. So it will take at least that amount of time, when you buffer the schedule.
Jim: Well, and consider when you’re buffering a schedule, you’re doing irrational numbers. You’re doing arithmetic on irrational numbers. It does… It’s not going to work out, right.
Jim: You double the thing that didn’t make any sense to begin with.
Michele: Right. It means you don’t know, and if you have to… if you do this buffering scheme, it means you don’t know how long it’s going to take.
Jim: Well, it’s trying to quantify the degree of mistrust in people’s crazy estimates.
Michele: Well, yeah, the whole thing is just crazy.
Jim: Well, if we double it… and then where does the doubling stop anyway, right. Then the next guy up the line, like the manager, he says, [with a deep voice] “Well, the team says this, I’m going to double it for when I tell my boss.”
Jim: And so they double, double, double, double, double and pretty soon you’ve got a real schedule going.
Michele: This reminds me of my first experience with schedules in the quote “real world”, which was, I’m hired out of graduate school…
Jim: In the quote “real world.”
Michele: …into Microsoft as a project manager, and I’m invited to this all hands meeting, where all the project managers and all the development leads show up in this meeting with the big boss, who is there.
Jim: This all sounds very primitive. Sounds like some sort of tribe you’re talking about. Like do they blow a bugle for the all hands meeting?
Michele: The all hands meeting.
Jim: [announcing] All hands, all hands, all hands.
Michele: The first week I’m nervous, I’m just out of college. I’m not sure what is going on.
Jim: It is kind of cool to go to an all hands meeting.
Michele: And I’m watching it…
Jim: Big boss.
Michele: And I had this feeling like something isn’t quite right, but I can’t put my finger on it. I can’t… it just… it just doesn’t give me a warm, fuzzy feeling to be in this meeting. And then I noticed the developmental leads just keep bring up reasons why things are going to take longer than they thought they were going to take.
Michele: And it’s just kind of going over and over that. And then I go the next week, the same thing. It’s going to take even longer than the last time we said it’s going to take even longer than we thought it was going to take.
Michele: And after about three weeks of this, I’m like OK, something is not right here. And then I noticed that one development lead, he works in Microsoft Projects, so he’s got those Gantt charts, where they are really detailed charts of how the project is going, with the little triangles…
Jim: The little boxes of tri circles.
Michele: … that show dependencies and how long each task takes and stuff.
Jim: And when you slip, all you got to do is plug in, and we slipped, this one slipped by this much and it recalculates how late you are automatically.
Michele: So after three weeks…
Jim: As if that were hard.
Michele: … after three weeks, I notice that every week this little chart he’s making, extends for two or three weeks.
Jim: Oh, you mean it gets a little longer.
Michele: Yeah, so…
Jim: Does it asymptotically approach zero? You know, like it gets closer?
Michele: Right. The projects…
Jim: Yeah, like we’re half way to the go.
Michele: The project is going to take an infinite amount of time, at this rate.
Jim: Right, right, right.
Michele: And then I knew for sure something was up. [laughing] But I didn’t really get a handle on it until I had a boss…
Jim: What was…
Michele: … after that who…
Jim: What was the problem?
Michele: The problem was that since he had that Gantt chart that looked really fancy, with all the dependencies that showed up, all the tasks…
Jim: Did it have like colors, colors…
Michele: Like since he had that…
Jim: Like green lines meant something…
Michele: … like everyone deferred to that piece of paper, like that was the truth, because he had it under quote “control.” Like he knew all this information so it must be true because he did this whole chart. And that’s how you do project management, like that was the belief that that’s how you do it. And I think that people still believe that today. Most people.
Jim: Well, I know all you got to do is look at the schedule for the team that makes Microsoft Project to know that Project doesn’t work very well. As a process, right.
Michele: Well, because if they’re using Projects, well, they are either not using it on themselves…
Jim: Well typically, yeah.
Michele: … or they’re late. [laughing]
Jim: One or the other. But it’s… it strikes me what is fundamentally wrong… yeah, they’re believing falsehood.
Jim: Because all you have to do is go to the very beginning of the chart where someone asks someone else, “How long is this going to take?”, and you know they can’t tell you. I defy anybody to tell me how long something is going to take, really. Now you can estimate stuff, and have goals, but that’s a lot different than “the schedule”, which is a fictional deal that enables you to avoid doing what you’re supposed to do, basically.
Jim: Because the schedule won’t allow it. And that’s why all the development leads and the program… they’re all posturing with respect to the schedule. [deep voice] Like OK, well no we can’t do… well, gee, that’s a great idea, we ought to do that, but the schedule won’t allow it. It’s ’cause the budget won’t allow it or we don’t have enough head count. Any art… any shortage that you believe in is probably not one that is true.
Michelle: And then the other thing that happens is, this is another one of my pet peeves.
Jim: With your pet peeves, you are kind of like a lady with too many cats. You’ve got a house full of pet peeves. But go ahead.
Michelle: Well I do like cats.
Jim: But you are easily peeved with folly. But that is appropriate so I got to backpedal out of this one.
Michelle: No that is all right.
Jim: What was your pet peeve, I interrupted, I put my own thought in the making.
Michelle: Let’s say the date in January 1st that some project is supposed to be done. That is the date they pick, six months ahead of time or a year ahead of time.
Jim: Well, that is when all the critical paths, charts come to fruition.
Michelle: Right, and then at some point someone realizes that, “We are never going to be done January 1st.” They either realize that or they believe it.
Jim: I call that hypocritical critical mass.
Michelle: Right, and then they do this thing. Sometimes they pull out their little Gantt chart things and they prove how it is going to take something like three extra months, or something like that. So then they just go, “It’s going to be done April 1st instead of January 1st.”
Jim: Well because they’ve got the thing.
Michelle: Because they proved it on the Gantt chart. And then all of a sudden everyone just forgets that it was supposed to be January 1st. No one ever talks about that again, so it is like that didn’t happen, they are not really late because they have a new date. It is not really that it was late.
Jim: Their thing is you use the same system that you used before. The one thing that you know for sure is that your way of generating dates is bad. When you realize that you are late for something the only thing left of certainty in your life is that you do not know how to do dates. What do you do then?
Michelle: Make a new date!
Jim: Exactly. With the same guy and the same chart.
Jim: You know, and green lines and blue lines. And it looks like you know what is going on. You know, knowing what is going on is not as good as paradise. I would rather not know what is happening and be in paradise then know what is happening and be in hell. I don’t know if that helps any.
Michelle: I don’t know if that is helpful or not.
Jim: What I am saying is the idea that you can predict what is going on is less valuable then going somewhere good.
Michelle: Yeah, just go there. Just decide where you want to go and go as soon as possible.
Jim: Just go to a good place. Make sure you get there, exactly. Put some elbow grease into it or whatever you need. But go to a good place rather than predicting how long it is going to take to get there. Does it really pay you to tell your children in the backseat of the car how long it going to take to get there? I don’t think so.
Michelle: No, It never seems to help.
Jim: Instead, you want them, as they mature, increasingly comfortable with uncertainty.
Michelle: Right you want them to get used to it.
Jim: Fabricated certainty is a losing strategy.
Jim: Because you cant’ do it. As Yogi Bear [laughter] Yogi Bear said, [imitates Yogi Bear]. No, not Yogi Bear, Yogi Beara said, predicting is easy as long as you don’t have to do it about the future. You have got to keep that in mind.
Michelle: So I have a tip alert. Make sure that when your team signs up for a date that you remember that date. And that if that date ever gets extended out that you don’t pick a new date and start pretending like that was the original date. Instead what you do is once that date comes and passes a day later you say, “We are one day late.” Two days after you say, “We are two days late.” And when people say, “Well, when is it going to be done?” You say, “I don’t know, but we are three days late, we are four days late, we are five days late.”
Jim: And you say to them, “You don’t want to be asking me when it is going to be done, I was totally wrong.”
Michelle: We were wrong. And I guarantee you people will be much more likely to get the project done as soon as possible and be less late then they would be normally. When they have to face that they are late, day by day.
Jim: As soon as that hits double digits or triple digits they start getting pretty grim and determined.
Michelle: Right. Another tip alert. Post it somewhere big where everyone must face it everyday. It says one, two, three “days late.” You put the number up everyday so that people must face it.
Jim: Have a thermometer that empties, you know how they have the ones that fill? Have one that just drains. But you have got to get feedback. It is like, it is a foundation stone of mediocrity that you schedule everything in sight. I want some schedules coming out of you people.
Michelle: Bathroom breaks.
Jim: Oh yeah. Schedule everything. Account possible thing that is going to happen. I want to know if the coffee is going to overrun the pot.
Michelle: And if you are wrong, you go back to change the schedule to show how it was wrong.
Jim: Account for people getting sick and account for vacation time. You account for everything and then tell me when it is going to be done.
Michelle: That is right.
Jim: I just want to know that everything has been accounted for. And it may take longer to account for thing then it does to do the project, but my plan is to be a mediocre organization and that is going to require some damn scheduling! I am telling you. I want to see Pert charts going down that hallway from one side to the other. And Pert is a significant term in your lexicon.
Michelle: Yeah I forgot the Pert. The Pert and the Gantt.
Jim: I want Perty and Gantty.
Michelle: I don’t use them so I don’t even know what I am talking about.
Jim: You don’t even know what they mean. Get me a Pert chart, get me a Pert chart as soon as you get up in the morning. You come into work, you start scheduling you schedule all day long, you go home.
That is your job. I want schedules because I am after the mediocre organization. In search of mediocrity.
Michelle: Because Jim that is a foundation of mediocrity. We’ll see you next time. OK, so more next time.
Jim: OK, so more next time. Thanks for listening to us, thanks for downloading us. Thanks to Theory and Motion for the music, Gary Crane for the production, zMark Westeinner for the executive production and you, the listener and now the scheduler.
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