Forests and Trees, Programmers and English Majors

A friend of mine on Twitter posted the following pithy quote yesterday:

“Ask a programmer to review 10 lines of code, he’ll find 10 issues. Ask him to do 500 lines and he’ll say it looks good.”

As anyone who has worked with developers knows, this is 100% true, quite humourous at times, and frustrating (for those of us who manage such people) at others. Ironically, it is also true for other professions. Ask an English major (someone who majored in English in college, not British Army Major John Howard) to review a 500-word article, he’ll find 20 mistakes; a 500-page book, he’ll say it looks good. As a manager, how do you get the results you want? Specifically, how do you get your programmer to review the 500 lines of code or copy editor to review the entire book, all with the same diligence as the smaller project.

Digging deeper, the problem actually is not the programmer or English major. They are doing exactly the job they think you have asked them to do. In other words, the problem is the message you are communicating.

One of the critical elements of communication is that it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what your audience – programmer, copy editor or salesperson – hears. Ask a programmer to review 10 lines of code and he is hearing a very different message than if you asked him to review 500 lines, even if you use the exact same language.

  • 10 Lines: You are giving the programmer a very focused, single element within his expertise; you have asked him to examine and report on a single tree in the forest. The programmer sees that one tree, and thus understands your request to be one of looking for perfection. There are trees all around, he is standing in the middle of the forest, but you are giving him this one single tree. Clearly, this one tree is very important to you, or you would not waste his time on it. Since no tree (or code) is perfect, and in trees (as in code) there is a large subjective element as to its perfection, size, shape and beauty, he is guaranteed to find 10 issues in the tree. As trees go, he has done the job you asked him to do when you singled out a single tree and told him to ignore the rest of the forest.
  • 500 Lines: You are giving the programmer a very large, functional group of elements within his expertise; you have asked him about the state of the entire forest of trees. The programmer sees the same forest, and thus understands your request to be one of looking for functionality and sustainability. Since the purpose of the forest is to provide shade and be able to grow organically, the programmer will look for, “does it work?” and “will it last?” He doesn’t hear you asking about perfection or beauty, he hears you asking about functionality and sustainability. As a forest goes, he has done the job you asked him to do when you pointed out the entire forest.

The insight of the quote applies not only to one manager and one worker, but to team, division, corporate, customer and even national communications, whether written or spoken, presented in a group or one-on-one. Most of all, it applies to incentives. After all, incentives are nothing more or less than a tool for communicating what you want your people to do. This is so crucial that it bears repeating. Incentives are nothing more or less than a tool for communicating what you want your people to do. It is so powerful a tool, that your people will ignore everything else you say and focus on that which meets their incentives.

I once had a customer who ran a call centre. While the COO continually told his people how important good data about each call was to the business and their success, nonetheless, he paid them based on their speed within calls and their ability to get back on the call queue within 45 seconds of hangup. His agents got the message loud and clear: the message he communicated via incentives that time mattered, not the message via speeches and emails that customer service and customer data accuracy mattered. They focused on getting off the call as quickly as possible, and writing something up, anything, as long as it was done within 45 seconds.

When you want to understand why your people aren’t achieving what you expect, make sure you can get the unvarnished truth of exactly what they heard you asking them to do.

About Avi Deitcher

Avi Deitcher is a technology business consultant who lives to dramatically improve fast-moving and fast-growing companies. He writes regularly on this blog, and can be reached via Facebook, Twitter and avi@atomicinc.com.
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