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Friday, February 17, 2012

"Fixit day" sets some horrible precedents

I noticed a pattern in corporate life which had less than ideal results. It all came from the notion of a "fixit day", and it really set the wrong precedent for how things were to be handled in the future.

For those who haven't encountered these things, a fixit day is when a bunch of people are supposed to go off and do the things they should have been doing all along. In the particular example I'm thinking about, the focus was "documentation day", but there are plenty more which have come and gone.

On this particular day, everyone was encouraged to update the documentation for the things they built, ran, or otherwise knew about within the company. Much of this was handled through a wiki system, but there were other avenues. All of them had audit trails, so it was possible to see who "contributed" on that specific day. There was a little gift for people who participated.

Why am I writing about this? Oh, that's simple. On that day, I had the day off. I don't even remember why. I figured it would all work out in the end, since I always made it a point to update documentation which looked broken when I saw it. That's what wikis are for, after all. I thought that whoever was running it would collect both the "regulars" of documentation writing plus all of the people who worked just that day, and it would work out.

Well, it didn't. I never got my little documentation fixit turtle (apparently named Bartleby) but several other people did. I was pretty bummed. It wasn't just about the dumb little plastic turtle. It was more about the fact that people who do the right things as a matter of regular business were frequently overlooked or under-appreciated.

Meanwhile, those people who ride in to the rescue when something burns down are celebrated and idealized. Nobody ever gets to the point of discussing the bigger picture, and how it shouldn't have gotten that bad in the first place. The people who do the small incremental fixes all along to keep things from wasting away are rarely noticed or rewarded for their efforts.

This doesn't just apply to dumb things like fixit days. You'll see this come up for things like running a production service. Someone who just keeps things happy and stable will rarely be noticed. Then, if something blows up, odds are, whoever jumps on that grenade will receive ridiculous amounts of attention and even monetary rewards!

If you follow this along to a logical conclusion, you might see that people will start optimizing their behavior in order to earn this type of reward. You can just let things go until they get to the point where someone will give you special treatment for dealing with it. Other people will notice this, and they might fall into that groove as well. Pretty soon, you have a bunch of people just slacking off on purpose, waiting for something to fail majestically so they can leap to action and look cool.

Systems can be gamed. This is really not what you want in your organization.