An Hour in the Library

I recently spoke with a company who were setting up a process for estimating project costs, broken down by the services provided by the IT teams. The usual thing, how much for documentation reviews here, time to build servers there, etc. I was struck by the level of detail they were going into. We had a chat about how people were coming up with the time estimates for various tasks.

The person doing the work of gathering estimates, let’s call her B, thought some of the numbers were too high. I asked B why she was asking people for estimates when she already had an idea of what the right answer should be. This was the first attempt at the model. Wasn’t she just wasting a lot of people’s time?

Apparently it was because some of the estimates were much higher relative to what some other people had put down. It seems some people thought it would take 3 hours to review all the documentation, and other people would take 3 days. I suggested to B that, well, these are the subject matter experts, so maybe they’re right? Or maybe they didn’t understand the question?

Fear is the Mind Killer

I asked B what she knew about building a cost model. It turned out she’d never done it before. I suggested that it was a pretty common problem, and that I was fairly sure there’d be books about it. Maybe she could look it up and save herself some work?

On reflection, she thought that sounded pretty good, and if I had any specific references, to please pass them on. This was after about 3 weeks of work, and several rounds of asking SMEs for information.

I see this sort of thing all the time. B didn’t really know what she was doing, but just dove in head first and gave it a go. Many people see that kind of ‘go-getter’ attitude as admirable.

I don’t.

Let’s be clear here: This isn’t being willing to give things a try. This isn’t taking on some Big Hairy Audacious Goal. This is not knowing what to do, not spending any time figuring out what should be done, and just doing something, anything, to hide the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing.

This is diving in head first when the water is 3ft deep, without bothering to check first.

It’s not brave. It’s stupid. Needlessly so.

The Joy of Finding Things Out

“For every problem, there is always a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong.”

The issue I have here is not that people shouldn’t experiment and make mistakes and work things out. That’s fine for the genuinely novel. But what we’re talking about here isn’t novel. It’s something that every company has to deal with, and the odds are good that someone, somewhere, has solved at least some of the same problem.

Better yet, at least some of them have probably gone bankrupt while trying out several obvious methods that don’t work.

B was spending a lot of time (and therefore money) re-inventing something on her own. Only without the background. Or training. Or research.

And it wasn’t just her time. It was the time of many of her colleagues. Time spent developing a really precise model that was going to give consistently wrong answers to 5 decimal places. Mistaking precision for accuracy.


This wasn’t Not Invented Here syndrome. No one was preventing B from re-using existing knowledge from a book, or a Google search.

I think it was because people love discovery. Figuring things out is a lot of fun! That final ‘aha!’ moment when all the pieces come together is one of the best things.

But you don’t re-invent double-entry book keeping on company time. You buy SAP or MYOB.

You don’t try to re-invent the spreadsheet, you use Excel.

The weeks spent re-inventing a known business process is weeks not spent doing all the other things that need to be done. Things that don’t have an off-the-shelf solution ready to be re-used, or slightly adapted.

Special Snowflake Syndrome

Again, I see this a lot. Every customer complains that, yes, that all sounds good in theory, but we do things differently here. Every customer seems to believe that their company is special, and has unique problems that no other company has to deal with. I call it the ‘special snowflake syndrome’.

You are not a special snowflake.

Your company has a very small number of unique problems. 98% of the issues you have to deal with are exactly the same as every other company. Accounting: the same. HR: the same. Email: the same. Management: the same.

So why are you wasting so much time re-solving problems someone else has solved for you, when you could be focussing on the few things that genuinely make you different and special? Here’s a hint: your more successful competitor does.

Work Lazier, Not Harder

I’ll finish with one of my favourite pithy phrases:

“A week in the lab will save you an hour in the library.”

This is not your year 11 maths exam. Go look up the answer in a book. Stop spending hours a day re-inventing something that you can find with a Google search.

Get lazy, and you’ll get a lot more done.

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