Build or burn?

Build or burn

‘How was it done last time?’ I think those might have been the very first words I uttered in my first management job, after the initial introductions.  Its cousin is ‘Because it was done that way last time’.  There’s a tension between repeating certain tasks the way they were done in the past, and throwing whole processes out the window and either leaving them there or starting again from scratch.

One of the nicest phrases I’ve heard in business is ‘The poor soul didn’t know it was impossible, he just went ahead and did it’.  The circumstances in which I heard this were in a research lab where a young researcher either didn’t know or ignored all the company’s previous failed attempts at some project goal and managed to achieve something no one thought feasible.

Stories like that make the case that you should be prepared to throw away or ignore the past and try new ways of working.  I’ve listened to management ‘gurus’ (actually, academics) who advocate this approach with comments like ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll get the results you’ve always had’ or tell some inspirational tale about how a super-successful businessman builds a new yacht for himself every year and then burns it at the end of the season, presumably to symbolise the value of starting over.  At the time of listening to these gurus I agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment.  As a young manager, I secretly enjoyed it when some of my staff complained at the rate at which I was changing things within the departments I was running.  Now, in middle age, I’m not so sure.

Even as a young manager, I could see clearly why people would do things the same way as they had been done previously.  It’s quicker.  Starting from first principles, looking at alternative ways of achieving an objective, testing or training in a new technique; it all takes time.  In business, the one thing you never have enough of is time, so it makes perfect sense to repeat practices that have worked before.  The advocates of this philosophy, who tend not to have forged careers as management ‘gurus’, might express it with sayings like ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ or ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel’.

As we get older, our longer experience makes us better and more efficient and doing things we’ve done before, but it must also make us prone to resist the idea that practices with which we’ve become familiar might have to change.  How could it be otherwise?  We are beneficiaries and victims of our experience at the same time.  Meanwhile the inexperienced manager, in their enthusiasm to do things differently, or in their arrogant dismissal of the discomfiture they’re causing (I speak, unfortunately, from personal experience) risks implementing a change ineptly.  If there is not enough hand-holding, not enough explanation, not enough training and bedding-down, it can lead to bad outcomes.

As with everything in management there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.  It’s a question of recognising your natural disposition and being open to the possibility your natural inclination might be wrong.  I’ve often wrestled with the thought that it could be worthwhile to change things just for the change’s sake: the cost of the disruption being less than the cost of missing a fundamental shift in the business environment.  Such a thought obviously places me firmly predisposed towards ‘burning’ things.

In fact I think it’s part of the majesty of the human race that the young tend to ignore the older generation.  Yes, it means mistakes of the past are repeated, but if it were otherwise how would we have progress?  Nevertheless, I can see how this attitude has got me into trouble in the past.  Also I’ve observed how children learn by imitating their elders.  An older colleague, on taking a new job and being asked by me what he was planning to change, replied that in the first 6 months he was going to change absolutely nothing.  Instead he planned to do only one thing: to keep his eyes and ears open.  That always struck me as sound advice.

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