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As Thanksgiving, out-of-town relatives, and the decades-long-in-arriving automobile manufacturers implosion all approach, this thought occurred to me:

Contentment comes from wanting what you have, ambition from wanting what the other person has, and progress from wanting what nobody has.

Fear? It comes from wanting to keep what you have when something threatens to take it away.

* * *

Many in America are fearful, and have good reason to be. The economy is in a downward spiral; our so-called business leaders … disdainful of government for decades … are lined up for hand-outs with no plan beyond wanting enough cash to make payroll this week; and we’re between presidents at the moment, so political leadership is more a thing of the past and future than of the present.

* * *

The Economist, in its 11/22/2008 edition, reports the curious case of cash (“All you need is cash,” p. 17). Until recently, economists (and The Economist) considered accumulated cash to be sinful. Management was supposed to return it all to shareholders while maximizing debt (thereby “leveraging their balance sheets”).

Only an unenlightened few, such as Microsoft and Toyota, ignored this version of management “best practices.” Economists, it appears, care only about shareholder value, not about stable and resilient organizations.

* * *

The so-called “Tarmac Task Force” was a group theoretically chartered to develop clear guidelines for dealing with the excessive ground delays that occasionally turn air travel into what any reasonable society would consider kidnapping.

The task force described its work product as a set of best practices. What’s best about them? They’re non-binding, and they’re “flexible.” For example, they place no time limit at all on how long an airline might trap passengers (even a month would not constitute a violation). They do require flight crews to “make every reasonable effort” to keep lavatories usable, but not the ground crews that could, for example, pump out the tanks.

Speaking of best practices, a word about the so-called journalists who reported on this story: The differences among the available versions of the story are minimal, including their shared failure to provide either the official name of the task force or a link to the formal report (which you’ll find here: http://www.dot.gov/affairs/Tarmac.pdf . Thanks to the T2Impact Blog for providing the link).

* * *

Two lessons for IT leaders from all of this (what, you thought I wouldn’t get around to something that’s of practical use for you?).

The first is Bob’s Unencumbered-by-Facts Root Cause Analysis of why the Tarmac Task Force failed so dismally: Its members participated to represent constituencies, not to solve a shared problem.

This happens over and over again in the world. In governments it’s nearly inescapable. In business it’s a clear symptom of the absence of leadership.

Whenever you charter a team to solve a problem, make sure everyone on the team understands they have a shared problem to solve. The members come from different constituencies and have special expertise as a result. That’s very different from representing a constituency. If you allow constituency thinking, nobody will keep your lavatories working either.

The second lesson: The phrase “best practice” has lost what little meaning it once had.

“Best practice” most often proposes the strange notion that a single way of doing things is optimal for all situations. It never is.

Consider application development. Best practice? There are those who insist Agile is the way to go, while traditionalists scoff at such nouveau approaches, preferring waterfall methodologies as the tried and true means for turning out bug-free software.

Both camps are right, both are wrong, because there is no best practice. Agile produces more reliable completion rates and levels of end-user satisfaction than waterfall, so it must be best, mustn’t it?

No. It’s best for some situations, but not offshore outsourcing, which requires waterfall as a precondition for success.

No matter what the subject, you’ll find lots of excellent practices, each suitable for a specific context. Learn about them all. Then figure out what practice will fit your situation best.

An alternative use of “Best practice” is “basic professionalism” — the minimum standard of acceptable effort. It’s worthwhile, but “best”? Best practice is something to brag about. Basic professionalism is merely something to assume.

And now the Tarmac Task Force has given us a third meaning for best practice: “The best we could manage, no matter how inadequate.”


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