Monday, January 11, 2010

The myth of the "A" and why it hurts students

In a former life I managed a team of 30 people and after doing so for a few years felt pretty confident in my abilities to successfully accomplish any assigned task with that group.  My idea of success was reaching an end state on a task that met my personal standards of what "right looked like" which was, according to others, a reasonable but high standard.  In other words, I expected, as best as I could envision it, "A" quality work from me and my team.  With that number of folks, some of whom in subordinate leadership positions being quite skilled in their areas of expertise, all working together, we could go great things. 

I happened to be talking about this with a more senior manager in a similar organization one day. He managed 3 teams the size of mine and he made a statement that has stuck with me ever since.

"If you can, as a group, consistently get to the 80% solution ON TIME you are doing better than most and THAT is success." (caps are my own emphasis)

This leads to an interesting correlation with the Pareto Principle which, while I have not proven this in anything more than a subjective and anecdotal way seems to be valid. 

Your highest (20%) performing subordinate units (people or teams) are there because they perform consistently at an 80% level.

If this is even remotely valid, and in 15 years of management I have not been proven incorrect (granted I could be delusional!!!) then it means that "success" in the real world comes from consistently doing "B-" quality work and getting it done ON TIME.

Think about that, as a teacher.

What does it mean when we (teachers, parents, university admission standards, etc) drill into students heads that an "A" is success? 

To me it means we brainwash students into being perfectionists who, as adults fail to understand the concept of "good enough" and kill ourselves over meaningless perfection in the workplace when we should be spending that extra time with family, exercising, etc to become a better, more healthy and balanced person.  We create young adults who don't work well on teams because the lack of getting things "perfect" (as we think it should be) in a collaborative environment drives kids nuts.  I see this play out in my classes project after project. 

Finally, it means that these kids, if they are unfortunate to become managers before getting deprogramed, become horrible managers and frustrate the folks who must work for them.

  • Make students do challenging small group assignments with milestone deliverables which emphasize timeliness and "good enough" as a standard on your rubrics
  • Don't give students the time to get it "perfect"
Deprogram them NOW. 

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