When I was younger I worked at McDonald’s on the sandwich assembly station (and occasionally the drive-thru). I always knew whether the cheeseburger I was passing down the line was prepared correctly or not. Everybody knows what a McDonald’s cheeseburger is supposed to look like and I was responsible for making like a thousand of them per day.
Unfortunately, that feedback you get with your eyes or your hands is not always possible in many of the knowledge work industries, especially technology companies that are constantly trying to do new things or innovate.
At some point, somebody will ask you to “whip something up in Excel” with minimal directions and hustle you on your way. Maybe it was obvious to them what they wanted but it isn’t obvious to you.
The natural reaction is to try to figure out what they really want, to plug the holes in their incomplete instructions so you can hand them back something that is perfect and hopefully impresses them. This can be a trap! Before you know it your brain is in overdrive trying to find solutions to problems that may or may not exist.
Here is the secret; they probably don’t know what they really want either. This task has likely never been done before. There isn’t a template (or they would have given you one). There isn’t a right answer. They don’t want perfect. You can’t assume anything nor would they want you to.
At McDonald’s, I made a cheeseburger and then a customer ate it. Done. Over. Two steps. But on a technology team, there is an implicit assumption that work is comprised of a highly iterative and collaborative process.
I choose a bun, show it to a customer, they give me the thumbs up because it looks fresh.
I throw a patty on there, show it to the customer, they smile because it looks like it has a nice charred sear on it.
I throw some condiments on, show them and they frown, they don’t like tomatoes.
Finally, I wrap it up and they eat it; perhaps it will be the most delicious cheeseburger of their lives.
Kind of silly right! McDonald’s would definitely go out of business if they did that. But in our technology teams, we are not operating like factories. We are not trying to the same thing today that we did yesterday. Most of the time the people you look up to (your team lead, your customer) only have a vague notion of what they want. Every task is a unique cheeseburger that needs to be iterated until everybody is happy.
Resist the temptation to assume that you are surrounded by smart people and so you need to act smart. Don’t spend one second trying to figure out someone else’s definition of perfect. No assumptions. Turn off your brain, stop thinking about it, and get really good at brute force iteration.
It won’t be as easy as it sounds. By definition when you iterate the first few things you produce will be wrong. They will not be good enough. They will likely be incomplete. Nobody eats just the bun.
You have to get comfortable with showing incomplete work. Get good at saying, here is version 1, what would you like to see for version 2? Understand that nothing is ever finished; there will always be another iteration, another opportunity to make it better. So how fast can you move through those first few iterations?
I promise you will impress everybody if you can perfect the process of iterating rather than try to perfect a particular task.
In 2018 I am trying to learn more about what kinds of problems you are facing with data. I am offering my time to talk on the phone and brainstorm about your business, your data, and just talk shop. 30 minutes with Zac.