Systems vs. Superstars

Systems vs. Superstars

In an older post titled Big Macs vs. the Naked Chef, Joel Spolsky wrote about the difficulty in taking high quality output from talented employees and designing systems so that “anyone” can do the work. He compares McDonald’s and the Naked Chef, which is, perhaps, pushing the outer edges of a metaphor, and comes to the following conclusion:

  1. Some things need talent to do really well.
  2. It’s hard to scale talent.
  3. One way people try to scale talent is by having the talent create rules for the untalented to follow.
  4. The quality of the resulting product is very low.

I agree with Joel (never a bad idea, overall; he’s smart and he makes more money than I do) up to the fourth point.

There are a WHOLE lot of steps between “work that only the best employees can do well” and “creating low quality output because employees followed rules to do their work.”  Agreed, I don’t want Joe Blow off the street following a rule book to perform my next knee surgery.  But I do hope the OR employees follow a checklist to make sure the operating theater is set up correctly in between patients.  (For that matter, most of medicine as we practice it in the US today is a system of rules-based scaling of talent.  Not that it’s perfect–just that medical care would be MUCH more expensive, and less effective,  if every health care worker had to invent every treatment each time a new patient entered the system.)

In his article, Joel seems to overlook the idea that he himself is no longer writing much code–that he has created a system (of sorts) that the people he hired can follow to create great products. While he may not have created an idiot-proof methodology, his employees share a way of working that allows them to not reinvent the wheel every time they do something more than once.

Quality is not the same as excellence

While I rarely eat at McDonald’s, I’m not so quick to say that their employees produce a “low quality” product. “Quality” is a big word, and strictly speaking, it usually means “conformance to specifications.” (In the productivity lexicon, it is “excellence” that is used to describe how truly great a product is.) In other words, McDonald’s serves high-quality, low-excellence food  (although their new coffee is certainly giving Starbucks a run for their money on the “excellence” front!), while the Naked Chef prepares food that is usually excellent, and sometimes lower quality.

What does this mean to you?

Chances are, you can’t afford too many superstar employees (besides yourself).  Working IN the business is the process of turning your skills and gifts into revenue.  Working ON the business is the process of scaling your talent so that a) your employees can do what you do and b) their work increases the business’ revenue.

If you can afford a superstar or two, part of their work should be to figure out how to document / design / structure / systematize what it is that they do so that someone other than themselves can do it.  Ideally, your superstar employee will want to do some part of this transfer, although, unfortunately, many of them are not really good at step-by-step documentation.  People who like “figuring things out” are often much happier if they can keep figuring NEW things out, while handing off the work they “already figured out” to someone else who likes doing the same things the same way.  (Not to plug my own work, but “documenting the hand-off” is what I do.)

Note:  If your business is tech-intensive, particularly if you hire people to create software, I highly recommend reading most of what Joel Spolsky writes / has written (he recently gave up his regular column at Inc. Magazine to Jason Fried from to focus more on growing his business).  In addition, the job boards at StackOverflow are a good place to find programmers.  If your business is less NYC and more service-intensive than software product, some of what he writes about won’t be applicable to you.

Where is your business on the systems vs. superstars continuum?  Let me know in the comments.  Thanks!