Virtuoso Performance as a Measure of Organizational Maturity


Mary Shaw of Carnegie Mellon University talked about "virtuoso performances" in the engineering world about ten years ago in an effort to define what she meant by engineering.  The idea is this: engineering is a system of processes and procedures where normal people can perform quality work.  Without engineering, you're left to rely on virtuoso performers to accomplish the task.  The problem obviously is that there are a lot fewer virtuoso performers that normal folk. 

Think of it in terms of building a bridge.  Hundreds of years ago, building a bridge was an art practiced by people who did a good job of building bridges but couldn't really tell you how they did it.  Now, we can teach almost any bright person (who has a few math skills) how to design a bridge that won't fall down.  That is engineering. 

As we strive for high availability in our computing services and greater reliability in our process, we will have to build processes that reduce the number heroic measures undertaken by virtuosos.  In fact, I think you could measure the virtuoso performances and heroic feats in an organization and come up with a good feel for the organizations maturity: they're inversely proportional. 

Organizations with immature processes rely almost exclusively on heroic measures to achieve their goals and keep their customers happy.  The problem is that its almost impossible to sustain: there just aren't enough virtuoso performers and they get burnt out.  What's worse, organizations come to rely on rewards to the virtuoso performers as a means of trying to solve problems.  Mature organizations, on the other hand, reply on processes that allow almost any intelligent person to be trained to deliver excellent results reliably. 

I've got nothing against virtuoso performers or rewarding them for their efforts.  We need them and their talent.  I just think we ask too much when we rely on them to sustain our systems in the face of ad hoc procedures and processes.  Its not fair to them and it doesn't keep customers happy. 

Ask yourself how many times your organization has relied on heroic measures in the last three months to keep its clients and customers happy.  What do you think could be done to change the situation and come to rely on a mature process instead?