Focusing on the coat sleeve. The problem with cultures of excellence.

I have an issue with cultures of excellence, in particular, with excellence in software engineering.

Again, and again, I have seen cultures of excellence lead to cultures of fear.

Last weekend I was re-reading Domain-Driven Design. And there is a story that resonated with me, because it is something that I see happening regularly.

During the filing of Monty Phyton and the Holy Grail, John Cleese and Michael Palin shot a scene over and over, but it wasn’t funny. They took a break, discussed the scene, made some changes, and shot one more take, which turned out to be quite funny. So they called it a day.

The next day, John Cleese was reviewing the rough cut the director put together of the previous day’s work. The scene they had repeated so many times the previous day was still not funny, one of the earlier takes had been used.

He asked the editor why he hadn’t used the last take, the funny one, and the director said that he couldn’t use it because someone had walked into the shot. Cleese watched the scene several times, but he could not see anything wrong. He asked the editor again, who stopped the scene at a moment where a coat sleeve could be seen at the edge of the picture.

The moral of the story is that the film editor removed a funny scene because he was focused on his craft, and because he was concerned of what other directors would think of him when they saw a coat in the scene. In the process, the heart of the scene had been lost.

And that is, more often than not, what happens in cultures of excellence.

The focus on the coat sleeve distracts from what should be the actual focus: making the spectators laugh. The focus on technical excellence more often than not distracts from the actual focus: delivering value to the user.

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