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Fixing Things That Don’t Need to be Fixed

Consultant Euan Semple, who thinks a lot about management, suggests one of the things that hurts organizations is managers running around fixing things that don’t need to be fixed. Is this a problem in your organization? If so, why does it happen and how can you stop it?


Why do we fix things that don’t need to be fixed?

There are several reasons why managers try to fix things that don’t need to be fixed. The most common reason is that there are situations where something looks problematic but is in fact already close to being optimal. For example, no matter how you’ve designed your performance management system it will have unwanted side effects. It’s natural to think these unwanted side effects should be fixed, yet an old hand will tell you that they’ve tried just about every imaginable variation in performance management. Every variation has unwanted consequences. The existing system has problems, but it’s no worse than the alternatives. Trying to fix it is a waste of time.

Another reason for fixing things that don’t need to be fixed is that something that seems unnecessary exists for a reason that has been forgotten. For example, maybe each month there is an audit of how accurately sales reps have entered data into the CRM system. There are never problems. A new manager decides this is a waste of time and “fixes” it by removing the audits. After a year it’s discovered the CRM data is a mess. It turns out the audit was needed to motivate the sales reps to enter data accurately. Instead of fixing a problem, the manager has created one.

Perhaps the saddest reason managers run around fixing things that don’t need to be fixed, is that they are doing so to boost their reputation. They don’t have any good ideas on what to do but they want to look busy, so they invent projects that sound plausible but end up wasting everyone’s time.

How to stop fixing things that don’t need to be fixed

To counter the trend of fixing things that don’t need to be fixed, we need to instill the right philosophy. We instill that philosophy by training and this training should include discussions where seasoned managers share their own relevant experiences.

Here are a few key ideas that could be shared in this training:

  • Just because a process has drawbacks, that doesn’t mean it’s not already near-optimal. Every process has problems.

  • Recognize that the current process exists for a reason. Be sure you understand the reason before you change it.

  • Be sceptical of consultants offering new, unproven ideas. Yes, you can try out new things, but do so cautiously with the understanding that there is a good chance they won’t work.

  • Note that some issues will resolve themselves on their own given time. For example, if a new employee makes mistakes, it may be that all you need to do is wait a few weeks and they will figure out how to do things correctly.

Many forces encourage us to upset the existing order and do things differently. These forces are strong enough that managers run around fixing things that don’t need to be fixed. Let’s counter those forces with a good dose of skepticism.

For more of my thoughts about what’s wrong with management check out my signature work Management for Scientists and Engineers: Why managing is still hard and if it will get better.


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