Nobody’s perfect

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I was walking through the TUM the other day when I saw a label above a nice architectural exhibit showing a building project, which read, “Der Zweck der Planung ist die Realisierung.” How very German that sentence is: three nouns and no real verb, like a stone temple of language. Nobody is doing anything in this sentence. Instead, it seems like there is one big purpose, one beautiful plan and one perfect realization. Oh, come on. That’s not how things work, is it? I, for one, would be in deep trouble if I had to get everything right in one step.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff – see his photography blog:

Sure you need a plan. But project planning is a process involving lots of people and changing complex environments. Everyone makes mistakes and there are countless problems that need your attention all the time. It seems that everyone I know is talking about the famous sisyphusPareto rule: The first 80 percent (or so) of anything you do are easy and take only 20% of your time and energy. But getting the last 20% done and fussing over all those tiny details uses up the other 80%. How do you keep from going insane over the absurd labors of Sisyphus? Well, common sense dictates that we need to focus on the essential things, on the things that matter. Image: IMTEK

There is actually a conceptual framework for software engineering that follows this sane principle, and it’s called “agile software development.” The team focuses on outcome and on perfecting the essential parts in very short cycles in which the whole process is “iterated”, which is fancy project talk for revisiting and testing. After each review you reevaluate your priorities and decide what needs to be done next. That allows everyone to pay attention to the core issues. Instead of having a “big plan up front” and then spending a lot of time and money putting it all into practice, you see very quickly what works and what doesn’t, so you don’t waste your energy on irrelevant details. And most importantly, you don’t start going down paths that don’t make sense in the grand scheme of things. In their manifesto, the founders say that they value:

  • individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • working software over comprehensive documentation
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • and responding to change over following a plan

Sounds good to me, but I do see some potential problems here. You need real freedom to select the tools to fit the client ad hoc – and if you’re constrained by contracts, that flexibility goes right out the window. Favoring face-to-face communication over written documentation can be a liability in terms of knowledge management. And then I can see that a preference for collaboration over negotiation could be a problem for external service providers because they can’t always bank on the security that the idea of “team work” suggests. Never mind: As long as this type of work produces quality in this age of measurable results, that’s what sells.What got me thinking about perfection and perfectibility was a talk by Jonathan Rosenberg, the Senior Vice President of Product Management at Google, telling students at his old college about how Google manages to stay technically innovative. He lays out 16 interesting rules, which I’m going to summarize for you. OK? Ready?

  1. Hire the best and put them together in small work spaces and then just watch the sparks fly. No distance workers, no specialists.
  2. Ideas come from anywhere – and from anyone – so take advantage of the “wisdom of crowds“.
  3. Practice openness and sharing – put everything on the intranet and use the concept of “wikinomics“. “You win, not by locking people and their ideas in, but by being better at the things you have actually done.”
  4. Morph ideas, don’t kill them – because we are constantly revisting ideas that didn’t work before and reapplying them.
  5. Users come first – because they punish companies that do the wrong thing and reward the ones that do the right thing.
  6. Data drives all decisions. Rosenberg says, “Don’t come into a meeting at Google and say ‘I think’. Come in and show us with data that comes from our log systems that we know to be true.”
  7. Iterate a product – don’t use a project plan – just get people working on a demo, see what users do and make it better.
  8. Keep your vision simple and share it with everyone.
  9. Give people creative freedom. (You know how Google lets its staff work on their own projects for 20% of their time.)
  10. Think big. Don’t under-promise and over-deliver. At Google people are expected to achieve about 60% of what they aimed for. (I’m not sure this would work in Germany. But, hey, it’s an American company – we like big talkers!)
  11. Bet on a trend.
  12. Accept a smaller piece of a larger pie.
  13. Feed the winners, starve the losers. (Hello Darwin!)
  14. Avoid the highest paid person’s opinion (“hippos”).
  15. Take a pragmatic view of the law. (Don’t take risks you can’t afford!)
  16. Reward innovation. Profit sharing doesn’t work. Rosenberg says, “Life’s not fair.”

Pretty impressive, huh? Pretty tough, too. No wonder Google is tops. But you know, I find Rosenberg’s nerdy, alpha-male posturing really hard to take. I hated his presentation. Mind you, he’s totally brilliant, but he’s just not a brilliant speaker. See? Not even the head honchos at Google have to be perfect.


  • See video: Jonathan Rosenberg, “Inside the Black Box: Technical Innovation at Google”, talking to students and faculty at his alma mater on 27 February 2008. 45 minutes. Skip the first 10 minutes, or jump in anywhere.
  • Google self-promotion. Nice work if you can get it. One job there is up for grabs: Chief Innovation Officer
  • was selected as the top of the 101 most useful websites by the Telegraph (nice list!)
  • Medicine for perfectionists, from musicians:
    “If you hit a wrong note, then make it right by what you play afterwards.” -Joe Pass
    “Doing your best is a process of trying to do your best.” -Townes Van Zandt
  • Learning the ropes – Vokabelprojekt

    label – Beschriftung
    noun – Substantiv
    purpose – Grund, Zweck

    be in deep trouble – ein großes Problem haben
    environment – Umfeld, Umgebung
    countless – unzählig
    to fuss over – großen Wirbel um Kleinkram machen
    to go insane – wahnsinnig werden
    the labors of Sisyphus – Sisyphusarbeit
    common sense – gesunder Menschenverstand
    to dictate – vorschreiben
    actually – eigentlich
    conceptual framework – Rahmenkonzept
    software engineering – Softwareentwicklung
    sane – vernünftig, gesund
    agile – beweglich
    outcome – Ergebnis
    cycle – Zyklus
    to iterate – wiederholen (Fachsprache IT)
    to reevaluate – neubewerten
    priority, -ies – Priorität
    to pay attention – aufpassen, aufmerksam verfolgen
    core issues – Kernthemen
    go down a path – einen Weg einschlagen, einen Pfad verfolgen
    in the grand scheme of things – im größeren Zusammenhang
    tools – Werkzeuge
    comprehensive – umfassend
    customer – Kunde
    collaboration – Kooperation
    contract – Vertrag
    negotiation – Verhandlung
    to respond – reagieren, antworten
    potential problems – mögliche Probleme
    constrained – eingeengt
    it goes right out the window – fliegt zum Fenster hinaus
    to favor sth over sth else – bevorzugen
    face-to-face – persönlich
    liability – hier: Gefahr; Haftung, Bürde, Leistungspflicht, Verbindlichkeit
    in terms of – hinsichtlich
    knowledge management – Wissensmanagement
    preference – Vorliebe
    service providers – Dienstleister
    to bank on sth. – mit etw. rechnen
    security – Sicherheit
    Never mind – egal
    measurable results – messbare Ergebnisse
    it sells – es lässt sich gut verkaufen
    perfectibility – Perfektionierbarkeit
    talk – Vortrag
    college – Hochschule
    to lay out – ausbreiten
    to summarize – zusammenfassen
    hire – einstellen
    the sparks – die Funken
    distance workers – Fern-/ Heimarbeiter
    to take advantage of sth – sich zunutze machen
    wisdom of crowds – Buchtitel: Die Weisheit der Vielen
    sharing – teilenwikinomics – wiki + economics = Konzept der Wissenskonstruktion durch Zusammenarbeit
    to lock in – einsperren
    to morph – die Gestalt verwandeln
    to revisit – sich wieder vorknüpfen, wörtlich “wieder hingehen”
    to reapply – wieder anwenden
    to punish -bestrafen
    to reward – belohnen
    to drive – vorrantreiben
    decision – Entscheidung
    staff – Mitarbeiter
    under-promise and over-deliver – weniger als erwartet versprechen, mehr als erwartet liefern
    to achieve – erreichen
    to aim for – abzielen auf
    big talkers – Großschwätzer
    pie – Kuchen
    avoid – vermeiden
    opinion – Meinung
    take a view of – eine Perspektive einnehmen
    can afford – sich leisten können
    impressive – beeindruckend
    tough – hart
    tops – beste
    nerdy – intelligent, aber sozial unbeholfen
    alpha-male posturing – Mackergehabe
    hard to take – schwer zu ertragen
    mind you – wohlgemerkt
    (head) honcho – (USA coll., aus dem Japanischen) (Ober-) Manager, Chef, Boss
    faculty – Lehrkräfte an der Schule/ Hochschule
    alma mater – Uni, an der man studiert hat
    figure out – dahinter kommen
    up for grabs – zu haben (to grab for sth. = nach etw. greifen)
    daft – bekloppt, bescheuert, albern

    Note on job titles

    Senior Vice President of Product Management – Titel sind nicht übersetzbar, jeder Versuch ist ein fauler Kompromiss. Das hier is wohl sowas wie Führender Stellvertretender Vorstandsvorsitzender verantwortlich für Produktmanagement.

    English tip of the week

    Choose a word you like and locate it on or around your body. Dance it. Use your hands. So: Where’s your common sense? What’s a honcho? What is up for grabs?


3 Responses

  1. in America everybody is a “Vice President” so I think it more like a “Orden” than a job description or title!


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