Mundanity of excellence

In honor of the Olympics, I’d like to give a shout out to one of my favorite papers about excellence and performance. The Mundanity of Excellence. Weird title, excellent read.

We learn that if we work hard, practice, and have some luck — success will follow.

None of that is necessarily a bad thing. But if we consider excellence as the result of “mundane” behaviors, some annoying things that project managers want you to do begins to make (even more) sense.

“Excellence in competitive swimming [and, I would argue, in almost anything else] is achieved through qualitative differentiation from other swimmers, not through quantitative increases in activity. This means, in brief, that levels of the sport are qualitatively distinct; that stratification is discrete, not continuous; and that because of these factors, the swimming world is best conceived of as not a single entity but as multiple worlds, each with it’s own patterns of conduct.”

Software developers can be a rough clowder of feral cats to herd. Left to their devices you might get great products, or a disconnected system tottering on shaky foundation of technical debt. Here’s where the mundane comes in. Keep design docs up to date, break down your stories to digestible chunks, document your code, review the code, test it, keep the system of record up to date. Etc, etc. A bunch of little things that add up to a lot.

This leads us to axiom #1 in a project manager’s life:

Everyone hates their ticketing system.

Everyone hates updating whatever the system of record is, but equally hates being asked for status. Folks, you can’t have it both ways. I’m no fan of mindless status updates and RYG traffic light icons that try to simplify a complex situation into something even execs can understand. But believe it or not there are lots of people who really do need to know where we are with a project and you are the ones who know better than anyone else.

A closely related corollary is:

If we could only move off of [tool that everyone hates] and migrate to [tool that some people love] then things would be much better and we’d get so much more done!

The problem isn’t the tool, it’s the way we use it! It’s much better to develop the habit in people to use the tool as it’s intended to be used and really make an effort to keep it updated, than to throw it away, start with a blank slate, and in 6 months time be back at the same place.

Excellence is a series of small steps executed well. Develop a muscle memory of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.

Even if you’re not a swimmer.