Spengler: There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.
Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.
Spengler: It would be bad.
Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?
Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
Stantz: Total protonic reversal!
Venkman: Right. That’s bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.
Early in my career I was assigned to an SAP implementation project and received a task to create a financial statement. I was given a printout of a report from the legacy system and given the requirement of “Create this report in SAP.” No explanation of which accounts go with particular lines, no explanation of report parameters, and no explanation of how the math was to work.
Back in the day these reports were written using SAP’s proprietary programming language, ABAP, which was similar to COBOL. Getting the right business logic was the big challenge and getting the formatting to line up properly was tedious. I thought I had done really well figuring out the business logic and was proud that I had done so on my own with the bare-bones requirements. The tedium of doing the formatting was all that was left, and before doing that I wanted confirm I had the business logic correct. I passed the report on to the user in the Finance department with the request that he confirm the numbers were right.
What I received back was a marked-up report showing the formatting problems. This user wanted a double-underline before the grand-total and the numbers needed to be preceded by dollar signs. There was no review of the actual figures. It was frustrating to receive the report back with that feedback and a waste of time given it did not add any value to the project task.
At the time, I thought this user had performed an a-hole move that was really an avoidance of having to do any real work. Looking back on it, there was a lesson to be learned — aesthetics can be a roadblock to a meaningful conversation. Research has shown that first impressions are made within the first seven seconds. If those seven seconds are spent trying to decipher something, then the impression is that the work is shoddy.
Consider these two process maps that convey the same business logic:
The process on the left is difficult to follow with all the crossed lines, loops, different fonts, and unnecessary shapes. Logically it makes sense, but there is some significant mental capital that is spent trying to understand it. By the time the reader figures out how to follow the logic, they are not focused on the outcome of the process. The streams are crossed, which is bad.
The process flow on the right eliminates confusion by avoiding the crossed lines, having a simple left-to-right flow, and a limited set of symbols to follow. It looks like someone put some care and effort into developing it. With that attention paid to the format, surely the creator paid attention to the business logic. No need to worry about every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
Van Halen always had a clause in their contract rider that promoters must provide a bowl of M&Ms containing absolutely no brown ones. At the time many people thought that was some ridiculous request included as a joke. The real reason for it was that it was a quick indicator that the promoter had thoroughly read the contract. Failure to eliminate the brown M&M’s and there is a good chance the promoter failed to address the electrical requirements for the complex lighting system, which could cause significant safety issues.
People will use the superficial aspects of a work product as the initial indicator that the care has been put into the part that really matters. This may not always be a conscious decision, but it does create biases in our minds. There will always be times where we share rough work product with a close team member, but that should be with someone where the right working relationship has been developed. Work presented to a customer or management should be presented in polished format that shows you have taken pride in all aspects of the work. The process flow streams should not be crossed.