Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Starting and Finishing

In his classic book, The Soul of a New Machine, author Tracy Kidder follows the design and construction of a new mainframe. IBM had introduced a new product, and its Route 128 rival, Data General, was eager to produce a competitive model. Kidder embedded himself with the engineering team tasked with bringing the big iron to the marketplace. Reissued in paperback a few years ago, the technology described is now laughably obsolete. However, the real theme of the book concerns not technology, but human creativity, and in that sense the book will always have relevance.

I read this book a long, long time ago, and as far as I know, I don't even have a copy lying around. But some things stick out in my mind. In particular, Kidder spends a little time describing two categories of engineers: starters and finishers. Although it was over 20 years ago, and I certainly don't remember that section verbatim, I do clearly recall how deeply Kidder's description resonated for me.

Starters are driven by the need to create. They are incredibly comfortable with an empty white board and a ticking clock. Starters have ideas -- more ideas than they can follow up on, usually -- and are compelled to see those ideas become reality. They're tinkerers, experimenters, and hackers. Starters are the engine of innovation.

And yet, a starter who builds the world's greatest computer may only stay engaged until the machine barely operates. If it crashes every other day, or if it requires four power cables and a windmill to operate, or if you have to enter data into it using toggle switches, that won't bother the starter. His drive to create was satisfied the moment the system came to life and did more or less what it was intended to do. Anything beyond that, for a starter, is hardly worth paying attention to.

Finishers are driven by the need to perfect. They have no less of a creative impulse than starters, but they satisfy it by finding efficient ways to cross every T and dot every I. They make sure that the lights on the front panel meet all the IEEE specs, that all the defects uncovered in QA have been addressed, and that the power supply is of sufficient quality to keep the thing running reliably... well, at least until the warranty expires.

If you left home this morning in a car, you can thank a starter. If the car actually got you all the way to work, and the door didn't come off in your hand as you exited, you can thank a finisher.

As a leader, it's very important to spot these tendencies in your staff, and to delegate work accordingly. As an entrepreneur, it's even more important to recognize these traits in yourself. Fully appreciating your own strengths and weaknesses, as touchy-feely as that may sound, forms a critical piece of the foundation of your business. As speaker and author Marcus Buckingham points out, success comes to those who take advantage of their strengths and find ways to work around (rather than attempt to overcome) their weaknesses.

As for me:  by temperament, I'm definitely a starter.  As an engineer I am a starter.  As a writer, I'm a finisher:  it is much more comfortable for me to take an existing piece and hone it to perfection through careful editing than it is for me to stare at a blinking cursor, wondering if I have anything else to say.  As a consultant, therefore, I am fortunate, because so much of my work begins with engineering (say, evaluating a technology plan) and ends with writing.  I guess it just goes to show: if you roll a marble around a board long enough, it eventually finds the dimple.

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