Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Exception is the Rule

Recently, I was trying to help a client (let me call them "StartupCompany") mired in conflicts, exceptions, errors, anomalies, lapses, modifications and other deviations from the norm. These annoying exceptions were playing tricks with my blood pressure, so I had to be wired to a wearable blood pressure computer for twenty-four hours. As if StartupCompany didn't have enough interruptions, now my wearable computer was inflating a blood pressure cuff at random intervals throughout the day.

Every time the cuff inflated, I petulantly asked myself: Why can't they run a project like real people living run-of-the-mill, low-blood-pressure lives?

That night, I was using the Yellow Pages, and in the A categories in the Yellow Pages index, I chanced to notice a curious pattern. Here are the first few items:

Abortion Services and Alternatives. These were the first two entries in the index. I decided to skip them both, so as not to take sides in the pro-choice/pro-life conflict. I had enough conflicts within StartupCompany.

Abuse - Men, Women, Children. I decided to continue my scan of the index, and this was the next entry. The normal process of family living involves people loving and respecting each other, communicating well, and behaving appropriately according to societal norms. But when people start behaving inappropriately, they need Abuse Services. In StartupCompany, people normally respected one another, communicated well, and behaved appropriately according to societal norms. But they sometimes didn't, and they lacked "abuse services" for coping.

Academies (including private schools and special education). When the formal education system doesn't provide special knowledge or handle special cases, private academies and special education are called for. People within StartupCompany often needed to know things they hadn't learned in the public schools, but StartupCompany had no provision for special education.

Accident Prevention. Accidents aren't "supposed" to happen, StartupCompany had accidents. In order to improve, they needed processes to prevent accidents and to mitigate their consequences.

Accordions. Despite what some people think, accordions are perfectly normal, though not everybody learns to play them or appreciate them. Still, StartupCompany could have used some entertainment to lighten the mood once in a while.

Accountants. Accounting is also normal, but, if everything always went according to plan, we wouldn't need to account for things so carefully. We have to protect our financial well-being from mistakes and misbehavior, and that's what accountants do - and also what they should have been doing in StartupCompany.

Acetylene Welding. Some welding is normal, and some is for repairing things that are not supposed to break - but do anyway. StartupCompany lacked a "welding team" to handle lots of stuff that broke.

Acrylic Nails. Most normal people have fingernails, so why is there a nail business? Oh, yes, it's the human interface, and StartupCompany had to cope with conflicting ideas of what made a system beautiful - but they had no special beauty experts to resolve the conflicts.

Acting Instruction. We all need to "put on an act" now and then when we're caught by surprise. StartupCompany's people certainly needed training in how to behave in improvisational situations, but there was no acting instruction.

Acupressure/Acupuncture. If we were all healthy all the time, we wouldn't need medical services, and if "normal" Western medical services worked all the time, we wouldn't need acupressure and acupuncture. So, there are not only abnormal services, but meta-abnormal services - the services when the normal abnormal services fail - certainly true in StartupCompany.

Addressing Service. Have you ever tried to maintain a mailing list? Almost all the work is not the mailing itself, but maintaining the addresses. It's even worse for email, because email services haven't yet evolved "normal" ways of dealing with changes. Gee, neither had StartupCompany.

Adjusters. Adjusters, of course, are an abnormal service from the get-go. Without accidents, we wouldn't need insurance, and if things stayed on course, StartupCompany wouldn't have needed risk analysis. But they did.

Adobe Materials and Contractors. Adobe materials may not be "normal" where you live, but here in New Mexico, adobe is a normal building method. StartupCompany, too, has its idiosyncratic processes that are not normal in other projects - and newcomers have to learn about them or pay the price. But StartupCompany had no special services to bring newcomers up to speed.

Adoption Services. Yes, sometimes people are not wanted by their parents, and StartupCompany certainly had some unwanted people. But, they lacked "adoption" services for moving unwanted people around.

Adult Supervisory Care. "Normal" adults can take care of themselves without supervision, and normal workers wouldn't need much managing at all. But StartupCompany had two adults who could not take proper care of themselves, and the managers spent an inordinate amount of time on these two out of a hundred.

I stopped there, sobered by my reading. It was now clear to me that StartupCompany, being a startup, had an overly simplistic picture of what it takes to run a company. I needed an adjustor to adjust my blood pressure - I needed to see that my job as their consultant was to teach them that deviations are normal, and that they (and I) could do what real people do:

• stop whining and deal with them

• create systems to deal with them

• create systems to prevent them

And, of course, I have to do these three things in my own company - like not whining about my blood pressure.

2 comments:

jbullock said...

First of 2 - It never occurred to me to use the yellow pages as an Oracle, essentially a divination aid. Brilliant!

I have used my bookshelves, full of domain-related books this way. I've also sometimes brought a book, album or toy with me to a client site without being able to articulate why. The items I bring like this have always been helpful.

The yellow pages? Brilliant.

jbullock said...

It occurred to me while reading your blog post about that startup that in the end startups are a triage problem. For startups, the "everything is broken" problem, in addition to being mostly emotional, comes down to doing this:

- Triage. Deal with what will make a difference. You are over-booked. Get over it.

- Satisficing. Trying to make a process or practice "right" as in beyond reproach, bullet proof, or optimum will make you nuts. The standard is: "Good enough." "Likely to be good enough for a while." and "We'll know when it stops being good enough."

- Revisit. It's a startup. What was good enough yesterday won't be today. What needed dealing with yesterday won't today. Etc.

The last twist is that everybody will have an idea about how we should do each little thing, yet none will be agreed. Until you have had the conversation about "How we will do this around here." your personally obviously right way is just an opinion. To do anything together, you have to have the conversations, lots of them actually, in a hurry. The only way you'll be able to have the conversations fast enough is with triage, satisficing and revisiting.

Not that I've done this much.