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How we got here is not how we get out of here

In 1995, I got a job running some machinery on nights and weekends for a large health care company. I was a college student and it was a perfect job for me.

  • It was boring and I could do my homework. 
  • I had free reign to the 29th floor of a Chicago skyscraper until 6:00 AM. 
  • It paid $15.00 per hour, as many hours as I wanted to work.

The people who trained me were meticulous is telling me “this is how things are done.” In truth, their system took a fairly simple task and made it really complicated. They spent most of their day waiting for something to load onto the computer or setting up the machinery.

And when I’d point out that if you did things in a different order, the whole process ran a lot faster, I was sharply told, “Don’t mess with the order. This is how we were trained to do it. This is how things are done.

And I did. Until they left. And then I did things my own way.

This went on for months. The day staff would do 10% of the work and in 5-6 hours I’d come in and knock out the other 90% using my own techniques. And the day staff started to hate me. They’d leave me “encouraging notes” all the time about how I was making them look bad.

One night, about 10 o’clock, the door of my room swung open unexpectedly. I was blasting the Newsboys, reading Hodge’s Systematic Theology, and the machine was running like a champ even though I was barely looking at it. To my horror I had missed that my bosses, bosses, bosses, boss– the VP of the department– had stayed really late to work. As she had heard my music and wanted to say goodbye before she left.

I stood up suddenly, convinced I was about to be fired for breaking like 6 rules.

Adam, I want to ask you some questions!” Crap. Dangit. How did I let this happen?

It turns out that she had actually left at five and come back just to see me. She explained to me that she heard in a meeting that I was somehow doing more, cheaper, and faster than other employees who had 10 years experience on me. And no one knew why… so she had come to figure it out.

By the time I was done explaining my process to her she had two questions for me:

  1. Could I teach other people how to do this?
  2. How soon could I start as the supervisor of that area?
That’s when I learned that “this is how things are done” wasn’t going to work for me as an adult.

This is how things are done.

As an idea guy, there are rarely more offensive words spoken.

In my mind, there are lots of ways to do everything and the way that you’ve always done them has lead you to the results that you know. So, if you have the absolute best results/product/organization on the planet, and it can’t possibly get any better than it is, yes… I suppose this is how you do it.

But for everything else– This is how you do it to get the results you already have. 

  • This is our service order
  • This is our product cycle
  • This is our traditional calendar
  • This is our fundraiser
  • On and on

This is how things are done” is fools gold. Because of the law of diminishing returns, “this is how things are done” will only lead you into doing less, earning less, and reaching less– instead of more.

What’s interesting about being around people who believe in this? They think that it leads to greater efficiency and better results. And when results aren’t what they’d hoped they would be it’s not the system that is broken, it’s that you didn’t do things the right way, in the right order, or with the right people.

You see, “this is how we do things” works. At least it does for  them.This is how things are done” is comfortable, predictable, and easy.

But as a long-term strategy? It only leads to failure. Long term, systemic failure.

Sadly, because the law of diminishing returns is gradual you don’t even recognize that your systems are, like the frog in the pot, killing you.

Until one day you wake up and realize:

  • My church is way smaller than it used to be even though we’re working harder.
  • Kids aren’t coming to my retreats anymore even though I’m promoting it like crazy.
  • I’m selling fewer cars than I need to in order to survive and prices have never been better.
  • I’m making far fewer widgets than I need to be in order to make a profit.
  • I can’t make payroll, much less a profit.

What’s the solution?

Start some new mantras. “How can we do more with less?

Create a culture that rewards soft innovation.

Ask your frontline workers.

Reward your frontliners and they’ll keep you on the bleeding edge.

REVOLT: The systems that got you here will not be the systems that lead you where you want to go.

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3 Responses to How we got here is not how we get out of here

  1. RevBug July 30, 2011 at 6:24 am #

    when working as a lifeguard through hs/college – the first manager I worked for (she started the tradition at the end of each season of giving awards, momentos, etc) – she gave me a plaque that read something to the effect: “Some people go through life asking the question ‘Why?’ – – others more courageous ask, ‘Why not?'” – – –
    She was right – I was a thorn in her side because I kept pushing to look around the bend, see what’s next, explore new, faster, better, more efficient ways of doing the mundane tasks in and around the pool. I understand the energy, direction, motivation, insight (or at least I think I do.)
    The inevitable question, though – as we invite a generation to think, rethink, explore they whys and wherefores of our institutional affiliations (I’m going to say church) does/will this generation work to instill a culture of this exploration, rethinking, re-imagining that will invite the next gen and the next gen (and so on) into that process? Or is will we simply presume that we’ve made it the best, fastest, most productive and selfishly guard against ‘improvement’?
    What makes us think we’re any different than any previous generation?

    • adam mclane July 30, 2011 at 6:35 am #

      Oh, we will safeguard it. We will hold it like a trade secret and try to lord our secrets over our young because they are too naive or stupid to “get it.”

      And just like we’ve had to do and are having to do right now, they will have to take control. Maybe forcefully. They will put us out to pasture.

      That’s the way of the world, isn’t it?

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