Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Mistake Family

How tolerant is your organization towards mistakes? How often, have we been asked to “learn from our mistakes” and how often, have we actually (learned)?

I read a beautiful excerpt on “mistakes” from a book called “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” that made me thinking. We make mistakes, every day in some or the other form. For example, when we wake up in the morning and rush to work, skipping breakfast – we are making a deadly mistake, one that will come back to us later… Since, I am deeply engrossed and passionate about my role of a Product Manager, and while I am writing about mistakes, the one that is closest to me is the mistakes that we make documenting the requirements.

As a Product Manager, when I see priorities shuffle in random fashion, new requirements getting added at the whims and fancies of few good orators in the team, ambiguity and delay in communication, da daa, da daa ….I shiver at the thought of the end product. And still that happens over and over again and from one organization to another.

Of the several difficult to articulate and intangible to measure and abstract in nature, responsibilities of a Product Manager, there is one that stands out as a very specific deliverable, which, ties an idea to a final product and that is the PRD (Product Requirement Document) or its variant. This is one such document, that is the bible, the book of truth, a must read for anyone building the product. However, in my experience, most of the PRDs are analogous to the roads in India – roads that are built in between the potholes. Even though most of us PMs know the value of this document and understand the visibility of this textual collection – why do we make mistakes writing it without ambiguity and not adding the utmost details as possible? We learn from mistakes. We do. If we missed writing that the system will be used by 5 simultaneous users and if it starts to burn and fume as soon as the 5th user keys in, who is to blame? So, next time, we make sure to include in the PRD the performance criterion. But, we get so overwhelmed by the mistakes of the last release that we omit adding the end criterion for another feature (for example). And so on…

Mistakes are inevitable, but we need to know how to contain them. And I am sure, each to her own pace, we learn.

Like I said in the beginning of this post, my thinking was based on an interesting excerpt, I read in a book called (and I repeat) “Reminiscences of a Stock Broker” by E. Lefevre. This book was written in 1923 and is claimed to be the most relevant to date for investors and stock brokers (and for people like me, who are generally interested in the subject). The excerpt, very succinctly said, but profoundly suggests, why we end up making mistakes, over and over again! And it goes like this ...

“Of course, if a man is both wise and lucky, he will not make the same mistake twice. But he will make any one of the ten thousand brothers or cousins of the original. The mistake family is so large that there is always one of them around when you want to see what you can do in the fool-play line.”

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