"Do Your Best" Is Not A Plan

My buddy Bolivar Shagnasty described a problem he was having with his manager (Dirk Karkles). At their annual review, Dirk wasn't presenting any measurable goals for Bolivar's performance. "I just want you to do your best," said Dirk. "As long as you do your best, I'll be satisfied." Bolivar wasn't happy with this statement, but was unsure why. After all, shouldn't everyone try to do his best?

Bolivar is an excellent worker, but Dirk Karkles would always find something unsatisfactory with Bolivar's performance. "Is this really your best?" he would ask. "Well, yes," Bolivar would say, "but I can tell you're not happy with it. What level of performance on this task would make you happy?"

Dirk's answer was, "I just want you to do your best. I don't want to limit you by setting goals for you. For example, if I set a goal for you of '30', and you're capable of doing '50', then I've cheated you of '20' by setting too low a goal. You don't want me to cheat you of your best performance, do you?"

* * *

As personal philosophy, "do your best" is hard to beat, but as a management plan, it sucks. A manager cannot externally measure when you've attained "your best" in anything but the most strictly-defined activties (like a "personal best" in sports). The developer manager who uses "do your best" as goal direction is being lazy by avoiding the hard work of defining his expectations, and is setting his workers up for failure.

Here are some reasons "do your best" is a poor management plan:

  • It's not measurable.
  • A worker's "best" is a contingent target; it depends on how you marshal your limited resources (time, energy, attention, etc). If you do your absolute top best on one task, it reduces the amount of resources available for another task, so you have not done your "best" on everything. This means there is always something for the manager to point at and say "you're not doing your best."
  • Even assuming that it is a legitimate goal, there is no way to exceed the expectation of "your best." This means doing your absolute top best at all times is only "breaking even" as far as the manager is concerned. This is demoralizing to a worker; every single time he misses even a small thing, he gets picked-at for not doing his best. This leads to lower performance, since the goal of "your best" can never be truly met at all times.
  • It is lazy and greedy on the part of the manager. His job is to meet measurable goals, not to wring workers dry. The line about "then I've cheated you of '20'" above is an example of this.

Does this mean that all management expectations must be measurably defined explicitly in advance? Of course not; there is necessarily a lot of give-and-take in the implicit relationships and expectations of a particular organizational culture. But these implicit expectations are behavioral and interpersonal guides, not management goals. Goals by definition must be measurable; that way, you know when you've achieved them.

The lesson for managers here is: you need to do the hard work of defining your expectations in a measurable way; if you can't do that, don't be surprised if your workers are performing at the level you want. "Do your best" is philosophy, not planning.

Are you stuck with a legacy PHP application? You should buy my book because it gives you a step-by-step guide to improving your codebase, all while keeping it running the whole time.