Doing Wrong Things Righter

It was the fall of ’98 and I had been in the United States for barely over a year.  It was the beginning of a new semester and I was looking forward to seeing a friend who had been away for the summer. When we finally met, I was  excited and happy and wanting to let her know that I had missed her and that she looked good after the long summer break I proceeded to say:

It is so good to see you, you look so healthy.  It looks like you gained some weight!

Now, before you judge me, you’ll need to understand that I had lived in Nigeria (for a long time) leading up to that and at that time, in Nigeria, telling someone that they had gained weight (which was very different from telling someone they were overweight) over the summer was a compliment – it meant that they had a good summer break.  The school year was stressful and difficult and most of us ending looking a bit worn for wear by the time summer holidays came around.  I was innocently doing something I considered right.

Nonetheless, she wasn’t too pleased with my observation and so I proceeded to tell her what I meant, explaining to her what the compliment would have meant in Nigeria.  Well, as you can imagine, that only worsened the situation.  The more I talked, the worse it became.  Eventually she just walked away.  It took weeks of profuse apologies to get back into her good graces.

Whenever I remember that experience, I think of the Russell Ackoff quote:

The righter we do the wrong thing, the wronger we become.

I had initially said the wrong thing but in trying to right the wrong with my explanations, I just ended becoming wronger.

In knowledge work (and other types of) environments, “doing wrong things righter” is prevalent. It is almost the order of the day.  Many solutions are simply local optimizations with the wrong focus.  When we discover that they are not working and we try to improve (our wrong) solution, it makes the solutions even wronger. These solutions end up hurting both people and our economic goals. Examples of such “wrongs” in product development that I have observed include:

  • Having different roles in a challenged software delivery team fix their problems in isolation
  • Add more QA checks and inspections to prevent defects
  • Improving the estimation of things that shouldn’t be estimated in the first place.
  • Big design upfront in an attempt to lock down things (Agile teams are guilty of this as well, just in smaller time boxes)
  • Top-down driven policies to combat quality issues
  • Adding more layers of management because people need to be managed
  • Adding more people to a team so that things can be delivered faster
  • Scaling – I won’t even go there
  • Etc etc etc

(For the non-product development people who read this blog, I’m sure you can find similar items in your domains.)

So how can we avoid doing wrong things righter?  Well this goes into field of Systems Thinking and I’d encourage you to explore that.  But real quick, here are some thoughts:

  • Be open to the fact that you may have been doing the wrong thing the entire time
  • Understand the problem – the true problem and not just symptoms or side-effects. 5 Why’s can be valuable here.
  • Understand the system or systems in which the problem was discovered – don’t look at things in silos or parts. Be holistic in your approach. Understand the network of interactions; the value stream of work.
  • Attempt to dissolve (not solve) the problem if you can – this means remove the conditions that create the problem in the first place. Design new systems and structures.

Don’t get caught up in efficient ineffectiveness.  Don’t do wrong things righter.  Focus on doing the right things.  It’s easier said than done, but it is the right thing!



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