Give a man a fish and he’s got… a fish

fishingPerhaps you’ve heard the proverb “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  The expression can be traced back to a novel from the early 1800’s called Mrs. Dymond but the sentiment of the expression is understood by everyone.  If you do something for someone else that’s a good thing but teaching them to do it for themselves is a much greater benefit.  Anyone who has parents knows the conflict of giving their child what they are asking for rather than helping them learn it themselves.  Homework time is an ideal place for this lesson.  It’s easy just to say “John, the answer is 4”, rather than sitting for the half-hour it might take to teach the formula behind the answer.

To be certain, John will be happier in the moment just to get the “4” but John’s parents know that in the future, knowing how to do the math will deliver incalculable benefits to their son.

In the last decade or so in business, I’ve seen more and more movement towards the short benefit rather than teaching how to do a thing.  The examples of this are everywhere.  At one time we would have pointed someone towards the Encyclopedia Britannica and said “Look that up.”  None of us do that anymore.  To my surprise, they’re still around, by the way.  I looked them up while writing this.  You can find the Encyclopedia Britannica at  It’s prophetic perhaps that I found the reference for Britannica and Mrs. Dymond the same way we almost all do.  I searched for the reference and followed the most relevant links.  We do this type of research now at our desktops or on our phones while we stand at a stop light, on our tablets as we’re reading on the bus.

Instant gratification.

We have a phenomenon today elsewhere that helps make the point from a different perspective.  If you’ve followed the increasing popularity of “helicopter moms” you know that these women (and sometimes men) hover over their children helping to solve their problems for them.  While it hasn’t happened to me, a colleague at one of the world’s largest software firms told that they’d gotten a call from one of their staff’s mothers asking why their son hadn’t gotten the raise and promotion that they’d hoped for.  Sound ludicrous?  I’ve spoken to several university professors who have received similar calls asking why their child didn’t get a particular mark on a paper.

Mom will take care of it.

I’m not knocking the instant availability of information at our fingertips or getting help from others when we’re challenged any more than I am giving food to someone who’s hungry or offering to help a child understand a concept they’re working on.

But, where can that get us into trouble?

In the last month I spoke to person after person in the days leading up to the election about issues only to find out that their sole source of information about that issue was Facebook or Twitter.  That’s fine and that’s their choice of course.  Not everyone needs to be a policy wonk like me but it feels more like my child asking me to do their science project.

Years ago I was asked to be a judge for my daughter’s high school science project.  It’s a disturbing and yet fascinating exercise.  You can spot the projects that mom and dad did for their child from across the room and it doesn’t take long when asking the student about their subject or their project to realize that they’ve been coached in a script by someone and as soon as they’re asked a question off-script, they demonstrate how little they know about the subject.

They didn’t learn to fish, they just got a fish to eat.

In project management systems, where I spend all my working time, I see similar problems.  On a regular basis I’m asked for features and functions to be created whose main purpose is to alleviate responsibility from the project manager for analyzing their own project in order to streamline or make the reporting of data easier.  I get all kinds of requests but here’s an example from over 15 years ago so I don’t embarrass someone who’s made requests more recently.

I was in a large conference room with over 20 people going through the functionality of a project tracking system.  There were representatives from Finance, Project Management, IT and the executive office.  Both the CIO and CFO were in the room.

At one point the CFO asked “Why can’t the system just update the task’s progress based on the effort completed?”

I was confused.

“What if we had a task scheduled for 40 hours and we’ve completed 40 hours of work?” I asked.  “What should the system do?”

“It should mark the task complete,” the CFO said.

I might have laughed but he was absolutely serious.

“What if it’s not?” I asked.

“But if you’ve done the 40 hours, you are complete,” he said, looking confused.

“But what if there’s still work left on the task?” I repeated.

“But how could there be?” he asked.

In the end, the CIO took the CFO out of the room and when they returned the question was over but the CFO definitely did not look happy.

Sound funny?  In a way it is.  But in a way, it’s really not and not because the CFO had a naïve notion that tasks never go over budget.  The issue I had with the exchange was that someone wanted a feature put into software that would have started marking tasks complete even though they weren’t.  Almost every software manufacturer I know gets these kinds of requests.  At HMS we get at least one a month.

The desire for cheap closure to a question is almost universal in the world of today.  Almost everyone wants the fastest path to an answer for things.  We have to write “Spoiler alert” just to give people who really want to read the whole book or watch the whole movie to know we’re about to read the last page out loud.  At one time this would have never happened.  I can still remember the movie “The Crying Game” coming out.  No one gave the ending away.  Everyone who saw the movie had a twinkle in their eye like they wanted to reveal the last scene but no one did.   I’m not sure the Crying Game could be a hit in today’s world.

In the business of project management systems and software, you’ll find the push to make things simpler, easier, less analytical, and more synthesized is a trend that continues.  It’s something you’ve seen me talk about as a cautionary tale in my writings over the last few years.  I’m all for making things easier but I am absolutely against the idea of letting a project manager or business analyst abdicate their responsibility for analyzing the status of their own project.  A project manager, to my mind, should never be able to say “Well, that’s what the software said.” in response to a question on why is this project in the state that it’s in.

Give a man a fish, he’s got a fish.  Teach him to fish and he will not only be a productive member of our community, he’ll be able to pass on his skills and expertise to generations to come.