Public scolding as a mechanism for project reprioritization

(My jokey title for some reason reminds me of Samuel Delany’s classic SF story “Time considered as a helix of semi-precious stones”… but I digress.)

Jeremy writes about his new role at Yahoo, and I welcome his move and agree with most of the post. One part, though, I don’t know about:

“I’ve picked on Yahoo and Google quite a bit. I’m a harsh critic–especially about things that are important to me. I get upset when a service doesn’t do what I expect it to do. I don’t expect that to change at all. You want to know why?

Two rea[s]ons:

1. Because it works. Not always, of course, but sometimes the things that I point out get picked up and discussed–even fixed. Saying things in a more public way occasionally provides the motivation and attention necessary to get problems handled. I’m sure Scoble would back me up on this. :-)”

So, if I’m hearing Jeremy correctly, a good way to get things done within your own company is, roughly, to embarrass the company into focusing energy on the thing you’re concerned about. What do y’all think about that? Myself, I don’t have a problem with the publicness or the embarrassment aspect (bring all that on) — my problem with this method is the fact that it probably _does_ work, which Jeremy seems happy about. And if so, what’s the opportunity cost? Jeremy, do you have any visibility into what might be getting unfocused on when your issues receive more focus?I am starting from the assumption here that engineering time is zero-sum without new hiring, and that there are always far more projects to work on than people to do them. Any time a project gets raised in priority, something else sinks, whether you’re paying attention or not.

My own experience with large companies dealing with the occasional suddenly visible flaw in their product is that it doesn’t always lead to the best prioritization decision. You get conversations like this:

“We must have an immediate fix to sub-issue Y of quality issue X!!!”
“Why?”
“Because people are talking about it!!!”
“Hmm, OK. Well, the only person who can fix that is engineer Z. And he’s busy.”
“Whatever he’s working on can’t possibly be as important as sub-issue Y of quality issue X!!!”
“You’re right. He’s just working on our general complete approach to solve quality issue X once and for all, which in our planning meeting we decided was the most important project in the whole world. I’ll tell him to switch right now.”

In other words, the gadfly public product-improvement complaint can in practice just be another source of thrash. (Um, I’m sorry, let me rephrase that: “can provide the motivation and attention necessary to get the problems handled”. Is that better?)

If the source of people talking about the issue is somewhat organic, like customer complaints, then it completely makes sense to listen and change priorities (and that’s a hallmark of a nimble, responsive company, I guess). What makes me slightly uneasy about Jeremy’s approach is its self-aware manipulation of that dynamic.

As Jeremy says, this is now his job (and that, btw, makes my opinions on the dynamic moot). Interestingly, though, the fact that you can effect internal change by external blogging depends on the bloggers (or at least the well-known ones) being small in number – in fact, it should work best when you have a designated blogger like J or Scoble. What if (like MSFT) we had 1000 bloggers internal to a large company all talking loudly about where they want the product to go? This would make us all happy, actually. I assume that it would make J. happy, and it would make me happy, in part because it would be much more difficult for one single voice to effect change purely by making a complaint public. This is not just because the voices would tend to drown each other out, but also because it would help the company adapt to the openness and not let itself get thrashed.

So let 1000 flowers bloom, I say. I hope to see a lot more company-internal bloggers saying what they really think.

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