The longer I’m alive the more often I realize the cause of problems is someone’s failure to get the basics of their job right. We all love to believe our problems are advanced: it’s rare that any of us admit, or even consider, that the reason for something going wrong could be something basic we overlooked.
For starters, it takes confidence for anyone to take responsibility and even say something like, “This project did not go well and it’s my fault.” It’s far more common to point fingers, use passive language like “the project went badly” or hide in false complexity such as “our innovation infrastructure needed to be redistributed to support the unexpected variable dynamics.” Even if, all the while, the simplest and best answer is “this went poorly because I overlooked <fundamental thing/concept/question>.”
We habitually hide the core problem under layers of noise and complexity because it makes us feel safer, and feel more competent than if we openly looked for, much less confessed to, the simple truth. It can also be less awkward for others too as there can be safety in emotional ambiguity. To cut to the core requires everyone to be able and honest. Yet we know many professions where there is nowhere to hide. The best baseball players hit the ball safely only 30% of their attempts and strike out hundreds of times a year. Yet they don’t explain it away or invent jargon for it in the way people in the professional world do for failures of a simple nature (although some do complain to the referees far too often).
Perhaps worse is how once we have been doing something for 5 or 10 years, we convince ourselves we must be experts. And to admit we got a basic wrong hurts our egos and, we fear, our reputations. Yet in reality to call something what it is would likely enhance someone’s reputation more than hurt it, but many are not brave enough to find out. A true expert is valuable not only when they get it right, but in their speed, accuracy and remediation when they get it wrong.
Example #1: What percentage of people in every profession do you think are bad at what they do? 10%? 20%? 50%? There has to be a number. What do you think it is? I say, based on exactly zero data and pure conjecture, it must be at least 25%. People whose peers would never hire them to do what they are currently paid to do. To be fair they may be poorly treated or underpaid, but even if we limit this rant to the well treated and paid a sizable number remain.
Example #2: I’d guess half of all professional managers have not earned the trust of their team. Now if you don’t have the trust of your team, no budget, no brilliant plan, no clever organizational model, is going to save you. Your team will always under perform if they do no trust their leader. End of story.
So regarding the working world: want to fix 50% of the projects out there? Forget the advanced theories and complex explanations. Convince these managers to find the integrity to trust their own people, and then in reciprocation, the team will grow to trust the manager. And have leaders model the behavior of taking responsibility for basic things that go wrong without obscuring them away.
I seem to be in the minority, but perhaps many challenges managers believe are intractable, impenetrable, situations so complex they believe a PhD in 10 disciplines is required just to understand it, can be framed as one or two fundamental problems currently ignored that if called out could be solved and transform the situation.
What do you think? Do we need a reality check at the basics of our crafts? Or am I just being cranky?
[light edits: 4-1-2021]