Stupid Prizes

The other day my partner in Engineering approached me about a plan to fix our product quality issues.  

“Executive leadership wants a list of JIRA tickets that – when completed – will mean we’re past our product quality issues.”

“Why, for what?” I asked.

“Well, the executive team wants to track our progress on the quality issues with our product.” he said.

I pondered.  “But wouldn’t we just track quality?”  As I asked that, I realized we lacked the ability to measure quality.  And by quality I mean stability, performance, accuracy, usability (in no particular order).  

“They want a list of a dozen tickets and we’ll be successful when we finish that list.”  I promise, this really happened.  In real life.

I paused.  “So what if we select twelve random tickets?  Or the twelve easiest tickets to complete?”  I suggested this half in jest but also to call out the pure absurdity of what he was asking.  He paused.  He shrugged.  I waited.

“I’m just doing what we’re told,” he said, defeated.  Of course, I tried my best to reason with the powers that be.  Our quality problems, currently unmeasurable, come in through qualitative feedback from customers, Sales teams, partners.  They are real problems that we had prioritized months ago for the roadmap.  I suppose there’s some solace for people knowing that the problem can be summarized with a dozen tasks stored in JIRA.  In reality, it’s probably hundreds of tickets, and none of them will be worth much if we can’t measure the issues, of course.  How else will we know we’re getting better?

I have twin ten year old daughters and they listen to a lot of Taylor Swift.  Some might say too much Taylor Swift and they’d tell you there’s no such thing.  It’s gotten to the point where I’ve begun to like her music as well.  I find myself humming along to her albums and shaking my fist at whatever scoundrel ex-boyfriend she’s taking aim at in a given song.  I guess I too am a … Swiftie?  

I tell you all of this because Taylor Swift has one lyric in particular that is my favorite.  On the song “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” she sings “You play stupid games, you win stupid prizes.”

If you measure success by twelve possibly meaningless tickets being completed, you’ll win the prize of having completed twelve tasks.  But you won’t have solved the true problem you were hoping to tackle.

If you keep attending that recurring meeting where nothing gets solved, your prize will be attendance at a meeting no one probably needs you at. 

If you keep chasing every dollar of revenue at the expense of focusing on a true customer profile, you’ll be supporting multiple customers with disparate needs the rest of your professional life.

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Hey there. I hope you enjoyed this. I am writing a book on Quality and how teams can make sound decisions to build products rooted in excellence. Do you have a story to share? I’d love to hear from you. Check out more here.

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