Victus Spiritus


The Cleaner, leverage obsessions to bring order to chaotic systems

20 Dec 2010

Synthesizing Pearls out of an Irritating Mess

Whether it's mopping up spilt milk, refactoring spaghetti code, or cleaning up a terrible accident in the back of a car, we all share experiences bringing order to an out of control situation. In many cases the opposite is needed, and a wrecking crew is brought in to introduce far more disorder into a stagnant system before rebuilding. This brief riff will hash out a few culprits that necessitate the cleaner, as well the opportunities that open up when we hack our natural cleaner instincts.

As part of a steady team you may ponder the relevance of this riff on your own work. If you've been at your current position for some time and settled into a groove, the potential for reviewing best practices with a fresh perspective is unbounded. 

The most common mess is the one you inherit from your earlier (resource starved) self

Plenty of true and arm chair (me) cognitive scientists have researched the effect of biases on decision making. One of the biggies is the familiarity bias commonly referred to as Maslow's Hammer. Each time we encounter a novel problem we attempt to leverage existing tools with minimal modifications to allow us to produce good enough answers. Over time this immediate gratification process builds up to a frightening mess, which requires a cleaning crew to remedy. 

Resistance is Futile

The self made mess is likely to happen to the most tidy of house keepers. It's more productive to accept that periodic tool and process overhauls are necessary instead of striving for zero clutter (premature optimization). The same goes for investment theses, business growth/monetization^ plans, partnerships, and M&A activities. Ask the harsh questions:

Does this strategy still make sense in today's and tomorrow's world?

Will this partner be trustworthy and highly valuable after the deal is signed?

Making the most out of an inherited mess

Business coaches and consultants earn their keep by repeatedly cleaning up aspects of a business that are tumbling out of control. Premiere consultants are master artisans. They dive deeply into existing businesses to diagnose the true issues*, and then architect a solution quickly while implementing and gathering immediate feedback on their efforts. The best will accept payment only if a client is completely satisfied with their effort, for there is nothing as valuable as reputation. 

^= if a company doesn't monetize its products or services, it's not a business (yet)

*= Diagnosing the cause of business inefficiencies begins with best practices (5 Whys) and open access to team members of varying authority and proximity to product or service implementation (customer service to executives). The value of external consultants is their experience and perspective focused on the dirty details of day to day business. It's risky to shake up an aged revenue stream. Imagine being the guy or gal who inadvertently breaks the ad auction engine for Google or Facebook, a momentary lapse in efficiency can cost a business millions of dollars in revenue.