The Parable of the Starchart

In my sophomore year of college I lived on campus with two roommates. Like so many other college roommates, we had a bit of a problem keeping the kitchen clean.

We weren’t especially messy people on our own, but there’s something unfortunate that happens in shared spaces where responsibility is divided. Tasks without a single, clear owner tend to get ignored while everyone waits to see if the others will tackle it. Questions about fairness arise, and perceived slights set off chain reactions of retribution.

At some point I decided we needed a way to track our individual contributions. I wrote our names across the top of a piece of paper and picked up some gold star stickers (childhood nostalgia, anyone?). The starchart was born.

If you took out the trash, cleaned the counters, or washed the dishes, you’d earn stars. I wondered what the appropriate value of each of those tasks should be–do they all require the same amount of effort?–but in the end I “shipped” with the simplification that they’d all be worth a single star. I wondered what the correct enforcement mechanism would be: if you fell behind would you owe more rent? Could you be forced to do your chore right now? How much social disharmony would these things sow? I put the starchart up with the intention to solve those questions soon.

So up it went, and to my amazement, it worked. That very rough first version. Our kitchen became clean, largely stayed clean. We never solved the task equivalence question. It never mattered. In a year of use, the system never got any enforcement “teeth”. Everyone did what they were supposed to do, and if they didn’t, all it took was a polite reminder. I learned the lesson so many entrepreneurs learn by shipping early: the features you think matter might not matter at all.

As Peter Drucker famously remarked: “What gets measured gets managed.” But doubly so in an environment of respect. Sometimes the only thing getting in the way of a problem being solved is a lack of visibility into what’s actually happening.

So: 1) keep it simple 2) ship early 3) measure (something simple!) and 4) begin with trust.