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Do employees exhibit feature bloat?

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It’s time for another re-run – this time from the ancient days of 1999. It’s about … well, if you read on you’ll find out. – Bob

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A recent column (recent when this column first ran) addressed the frequent complaint that “I only need 10 percent of the features. The rest are useless frills.” It suggested that instead of complaining about feature bloat, you should learn more features, because there’s a lot of useful stuff in there. (Code bloat, of course is a different matter entirely.)

Somewhere in the lively discussion that followed, a question occurred to me: The people who claim they only use 10 percent of the features don’t know the features they don’t use. How do they know they’re only using 10 percent? Since you don’t know what you don’t know, you only know the numerator, not the divisor.

No matter: If software follows the everyday laws of probability, you’ll use 10 percent of the features 90 percent of the time. The two questions are: (1) What’s your personal point of diminishing returns? and (2) If you don’t use a feature, does its presence constitute feature bloat?

And then a colleague of mine asked one of those questions that make you lose interest in the original issue: “Never mind the software, Bob,” he asked me. “Do a lot of managers only make use of 10 percent of the capabilities of the people who work for them?”

Now there’s a question to conjure with. Can’t you just hear the feature-bloat arguments extended to employees?

“I only asked you to document the network, Jill,” a systems manager might say. “Your recommendations on how we can optimize it wasted space on the server and made me spend more time reading your report.”

The answer to my colleague’s question, then, is a resounding, “Yes, and ain’t it a shame?”

We’ve come a long way from the check-your-brains-at-the-door days, but nowhere near far enough. Most of us do understand the benefits of empowering employees, pushing decisions out to the people who do the day-to-day work. We do require thinking rather than forbidding it like we used to. That’s good.

It’s good, but it isn’t good enough, because when you’re in a leadership role you don’t get the most out of your employees by keeping them in their comfort zones.

Here’s an exercise for you. For each of your direct reports, list three responsibilities you think they’re capable of that aren’t part of their current job but are part of your department’s charter. Now ask your direct reports to do the same for themselves, and compare their thoughts to your own. Your list is a set of menu options the employee has never clicked on; their list describes features and capabilities you’ve never tried to use.

Every employee should have stretch assignments – responsibilities that require unproven skills and abilities – on a regular basis. In the list you and your employees have just created are the opportunities. Stretch assignments are good for both of you. For the employee, a stretch assignment is the fuel that propels career growth. For you, stretch assignments expand the capabilities of your department.

The rules for stretch assignments are simple. First, they have to be important, but not vital. By definition, they’re riskier than other assignments, so while success has to generate real benefit, failure shouldn’t result in serious harm.

Second, don’t expect perfection. People rarely do things perfectly on the first try. Sometimes, a feature is buggy in the first release but gets better in the next one. Employees should se stretch assignments as opportunities, not as potential career busters.

Third and last, you must offer enough support that the employee can succeed, but not so much that you eliminate the risk of failure. When employees can’t fail … when they don’t make real decisions, deal with real uncertainty along the way, and make the correct choices when doing so … they can’t succeed, because without the possibility of failure there is no success, only completion.

Comments (1)

  • Excellent column, with timeless wisdom. Thanks for resurrecting it.

    My bachelor degree is computer science, but I minored in sociology. AFAICT, I was the only one at my school that did. Maybe it helped that I went back to school at age 30, or maybe it was because it was the early 80s and we were just beginning to understand human-computer relations, but I saw a need for balance and that’s what drove my choices. I see a similar perspective in your columns, and I wish more professionals in our industry understood it as well as you do.

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