Specs, laws and floors

A spec sets standards and defines output, and laws set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

They are indispensable, but here’s the thing: specs and laws are always floors. You can’t legislate the maximum.

There is always an extra mile.

There are unlimited extra miles in just about every direction.

Once we’re meeting spec (within the law) and doing it consistently well, it’s helpful to ask these questions:

  • Which extra miles are most important to my customers, and which do they notice?
  • Which are most helpful to my customers, to my organisation and to society in the long run? (This sounds similar but is a different question)
  • How can I make spec with less effort, and grow my capacity to exceed it in important and memorable ways? (c.f. the placebo effect)
  • How can I create a culture where going above spec and getting at the spirit of the law – a culture of kindness, generosity and a default of giving people the benefit of the doubt – is the norm?

Thanks to Kevin for pointing this idea out, and to Seth for the reminder.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This is a great cut-the-crap book about management and building a company. It’s most relevant to the the tech world, but there are plenty of gems here that are relevant to anyone – he’s especially good on shaping your culture (hint: yoga at work is not your organisational culture).

Here’s the introduction:

Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.”

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.

The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed.

The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in he middle of the night in a cold sweat when your dream turns into a nightmare.

The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making hit songs; there’s no recipe for running for president … and there’s no recipe for motivating people when your business has turned to crap.

That’s the hard thing about hard things: there is no formula for dealing with them.

Nonetheless, there are many bits of advice and experience that can help with the hard things.

I do not attempt to present a formula in this book. Instead, I present my story and the difficulties that I have faced.

I share my experiences in the hope of providing clues and inspiration for others who find themselves in the struggle to build something out of nothing.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Highly recommend.

Expectations: tell us what you do

We’re staying at a simple hotel in North Sulawesi.

The setting is idyllic.

Our hosts are unfailingly pleasant and helpful.

Good food is served three times a day, at regular times… plus or minus an hour.

Our room is cleaned… intermittently, and our bin emptied when we take it to reception ourselves.

We have lights, running water, and even air conditioning… until the power goes off around 7 a.m. each day, after which there’s intermittent generator power until the evening. There’s no coffeemaking or showering unless the power’s on.

All of these things are fine, and part of the fun – but for the first few days the uncertainty was inconvenient and uncomfortable.

Problems like this can be made to disappear with little effort, at no cost, and without changing anything. All it takes is communication and a bit of consistency:

  • “We serve breakfast at 7 a.m. daily. Lunch will be served between 12 and 1 p.m., depending on what time the dive boat gets back.”
  • “We will clean your room once every three days. If you need your bin emptied between times, please leave it at reception and collect it empty later in the day.”
  • “Because we’re on a small island, the power supply is unreliable after 7 a.m. A thermos of hot water will be available for making coffee, and we will run the generator during the heat of the day, from 11.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for air conditioning. Mains power usually comes back on around 5 p.m.”

These could be shared with guests before booking, and again on arrival, so everyone knows what’s going on. No more questions to staff, no more confused or disgruntled guests.

Communicate clearly. Create the right expectations. Fulfill them. Everybody wins.