Gym Trophy

This weekend was the end-of-year “Trophy Day” for John’s pre-school gymnastics class. All the pre-schoolers show up for a gymnastics exhibition, attended by parents, grandparents and other relatives. Following the exhibition, all the students are awarded trophies. ALL the students are awarded trophies. I missed the event. When Gina came home, she was fuming. (As Gina is Sicilian, when she is fuming it is appropriate to conjure up volcanic images.)

“You know how you’re always talking about how advertising is going to destroy our civilization?” she asked. “Well, you’re wrong. Trophies will be our doom.”

Well, all right. She didn’t actually say the words “Trophies will be our doom”, but she was fuming, and, being Sicilian, gesticulating violently. Plus her usually impeccable grammatical constructions suffered from the onslaught of her Mediterranean temperament. I’m taking some editorial license and paraphrasing what she meant. Which was most certainly “Trophies will be our doom”

The reasoning goes something like this. It used to be that we believed in merit; in winners and losers; in the salutary effect of adversity and defeat in building character; in learning from mistakes. But on “Trophy Day”, we do not give a trophy to the best gymnast. And maybe the second best gymnast. No, on “Trophy Day”, we give a trophy to every gymnast. In the name of “self-esteem” and “not hurting anybody’s feelings”, we teach our 3-5 year old children that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, how much you learn, how good you become. Everybody gets the same trophy. And the other lesson we teach them is: it’s not about the excitement of learning or the joy of the sport. Mommy and Daddy and Grandma could take pictures every week at your gym lesson. But they don’t, because they don’t care about your skills or your interests nearly as much as they care about the shiny trophy that everybody gets — regardless of the effort you put in or the the quality of your results.

How much better if Grandma was supportive and excited and snapping pictures even if you didn’t get a trophy? How about if the feedback was “work harder and maybe you’ll do better next year”? Think of the self esteem generated by getting a trophy that only a handful of kids could get! Is it unfair that everybody doesn’t get one? Well, maybe some of those kids will win swimming trophies or dancing awards. Is it right to rob every child of the thrill of victory in order to spare them all the agony of defeat?

Alas, such a quaint Dickensian notion. Today, everybody gets a trophy. We are raising a generation which doesn’t understand the difference between winning and losing, success and failure. The doom of civilization, indeed.

But, what, I hear you ask, does this have to do with IT?

At AT&T Wireless, I had the privilege of working for someone who believed that success was different than (and better than) failure. Everybody shouldn’t get a trophy. One of the first things he did was institute a daily call to review the IT failures of the previous day, and discuss steps for resolution. If a system you worked on failed, you had to explain why it failed and what you were going to do about it. It wasn’t a witch hunt. The objective isn’t to shoot the three-year old who doesn’t do a cartwheel correctly. The objective is to teach the three-year old to admit that they, in fact, are not doing it correctly, so they must change something in order to start doing it correctly. And, of course, you’re unlikely to get a trophy for doing it wrong. The trophy is the recognition that you’ve mastered the skills. The bar is always set high enough so that most people haven’t mastered the skills yet.

Before we could improve our IT infrastructure and applications, we had to admit that they needed improving. This turned out to be a significant cultural change. I remember one particularly lengthy argument in which a team refused to admit that a failure to deliver reports on time was their fault. Eventually, we agreed that the customer had seen a service interruption, and somebody should take responsibility on behalf of IT. We made an elaborate certificate with flowery script that read “Acknowledgment of Defect” — and showed the before and after line of code which needed to be changed. We signed it, had it framed, and sent it to the CEO. He loved it. After that, it was easier to get people to admit that they had made a mistake.

Of course, making mistakes was not a good way to get a “trophy”. If you made a mistake, you got taken to task. The task was to learn how to do it correctly. Often, it wasn’t pleasant.

Over the course of my career, I’ve sometimes worked in places where management prefers the “Trophy Day” style of management. No matter how badly things go, the management memo talks about the “great team effort” and “awesome accomplishments” and the “great success”. You never see the memo that starts out: “Our last upgrade was an embarrassing botched job.”

I know why Gina gets so exercised about “Trophy Day”. I don’t like places like that, either.