Brian David Hall

Agency Optimization

Beware the Literal Genie

23 November 2018

If you’re spending a lot of time on rework for technical work, sending back seemingly straightforward tasks for multiple rounds of revision, you may be falling victim to the Literal Genie. You’re not alone; this problem is rampant, and causes thousands of hours of wasted effort every month.

The good news is that there are techniques you can use to avoid the curse. In this post, we’ll look at what the Literal Genie is and why it appears, then cover straightforward steps you can take to keep it at bay.

What is the Literal Genie?

The Literal Genie is a trope, as ancient as the Greek tale in which Zeus grants Tithonus immortality, but not eternal youth. The overarching theme is simple: you ask the genie for something, and the genie complies with the letter of your request, but not the spirit. You get exactly what you asked for, and that’s the problem.

In agency life, this manifests in technical projects and requests. Say you ask a developer to install a WordPress plugin to address the abysmal loading time of a landing page. Two days later, the request is fulfilled; a plugin is indeed installed. But when you check the page, it’s as slow as ever. And now the CSS seems to be broken 🤦‍♂️.

Or maybe you ask a data analyst to generate a report on ad spend by market for one of your clients. After billing you for 5 hours, she emails you a gorgeous PDF document with all the relevant details. Great … but you were just looking for a link to a custom report in Google Analytics or Data Studio. You need to look at these numbers month over month, not just for August 🤦‍♂️.

In each of these cases, it’s not you, and it’s not your team; it’s the Literal Genie at work.

What invokes the Literal Genie?

The Literal Genie appears for a few reasons. The first is simply that you’re busy. You have a question, or recognize an issue that needs to be addressed, so you dash off a quick request.

Which leads directly to the second reason: your team knows your busy, and they’re eager to win your approval. Unless they’re completely confused by what you’re asking, they will probably just jump in and try to deliver.

A final factor is the likelihood that when it comes to the technical side of things, you know just enough to be dangerous. You’re not a WordPress dev, but you know there are plugins that improve page load time. You’re not a data analyst, but you know it should be possible to break out ad spend by market in Data Studio.

Your questions, your eye for detail and dedication to quality, your technical knowledge, and your team’s desire to be responsive - none of these is a bad thing. But sometimes they all converge in a way that wastes time and fails to address the issue at hand. Luckily, this can be avoided.

What to do about the Literal Genie

The solution is to change the way you go about asking for technical deliverables. It will take more time up front than your current approach, but by dodging the Literal Genie and those frustrating rounds of rework, you’ll save time in the long run.

In each of the examples above, a bit more detail would have prevented the 🤦‍♂️. For the WordPress request, imagine if you had said “I expect to see the page speed score improved without impacting the UX of the page iteself.” This would have forced your dev to carry out the QA steps herself, and she wouldn’t have considered the task complete until those requirements were met. It might have even led her to diagnose the page load issue as involving custom, page-specific JavaScript that needed fixing - something beyond the scope of a plugin.

For the beautiful and useless PDF scenario, suppose you’d said “I plan to visit the report and compare ad spend month over month to answer a handful of specific client questions that came in via email.” This would have made it obvious that a static PDF report was not a solution. In fact, your data analyst might have even requested that you share the questions so she could go ahead and feed you a response.

In each case, you empowered your team member to deliver an appropriate solution by including acceptance criteria - a simple, plain English description of how you’ll verify the solution. In the case of the ad spend report, you went one better by including an explanation of why the task is important. Cultivate the habit of sharing this information when you make a request, and you’ll vanquish the Literal Genie.

Here are the steps to take the next time you make a technical request:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Close your eyes. Imagine the task is complete. How will you verify it?
  • Write down the exact steps you’ll take. (Open your eyes first)
  • Why is the task important? Share a brief note about this. Don’t assume it’s obvious to anyone other than you!

One last note - recall the data analyst who asked you to share the client’s questions. This is a good thing. As much as possible, you should encourage questions, pushback, and requests for clarification on technical tasks. You’ll know you’re in a good place when your team is asking questions like “What’s driving this request?” or “Why does it need to be a plugin?” That’s what it looks like when the Literal Genie is banished, and your team is delivering full solutions rather than incremental hacks.


Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash