A few years ago (in the Dark Ages before sat nav) I found myself in the centre of Leeds driving alone at night, on the way to a training event.  It was dark, raining heavily, past 11 pm.  I’d been driving for over 4 hours, and I was hungry, dying for a pee, and lost. Car driving in a rain storm with blurred red lights

I had printed out a map of the city centre (not a place I am at all familiar with), but because it was dark I couldn’t really read it whilst driving, and of course as I was tired and late and just wanted to get to bed, I told myself I didn’t have time to pull over and take stock, let alone ask someone for directions.

So instead I did what I always do in these situations:  I speeded up.  Thus accelerating the rate at which I was getting lost, and further from my destination.  I knew this was mad, but something in me told me to keep at it.  I think I even starting telling myself that if I went fast enough the law of averages would start to work in my favour and eventually I would come across the hotel.

I was trying to correct a Wrong thing, and in so doing making it “Wronger”.

I’m very grateful to my old Whitbread colleague John Gough‘s Blog for alerting me to the work of Russ Ackoff, the American management guru, who has some wonderful language to describe this:

“The righter we do the wrong thing”, he explains, “the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. Most of our current problems are the result of policy makers and managers busting a gut to do the wrong thing right.

Getting the right thing wrong is better than putting the wrong thing right.”

Quadrant 4: Doing things you should be doing, and doing them well.

Quadrant 4: Doing things you should be doing, and doing them well.

This builds very nicely on the model I shared last week which I call Working Smart.  In last week’s article I explained that most people spend only 40% of their working week doing Right Things Right.

So Ackoff is saying that if you try to move things out of my Quadrant 2 (Wrong Things Wrong), and convert them into Quadrant 3 (Wrong Things Right), you make them “wronger” (his word, not mine).  I love the simplicity and utter obviousness of that thought – one which has never occurred to me until now.

I describe Quadrant 3 as “doing things you shouldn’t be doing, and being great at it.”  I used to work for a company where the CEO was fantastic at using Microsoft Access.  He was so good at it that he concluded he could create a new customer database system for us much more effectively than any outside vendor could.  He then spent the next 3 months making this his top priority, meaning all the other stuff he should have been doing took a back step, and wheels started falling off elsewhere.

John’s Blog explains that too many projects get off on the wrong foot because of this tendency to not ensure we are doing Right things in the first place.  Should we be doing this at all?  Why are we doing it?  How do we know this is the Right thing to do?  What alternatives have we considered?  These questions are not asked enough, largely because of fear and because we don’t allow enough time to think.  It then becomes too late to ask them, and it’s a case of “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”

One can think of too many examples where this has clearly been the case:  London’s Millenium Dome, the Edinburgh Tram system, the new High Speed rail link HS2. This requires a mindset change.  When an alarm bell is ringing in our head, and we know that we are doing Wrong stuff, instead of trying to fix it we should be doing something somewhat more radical. verkehrszeichen v2 stop I Only that way do we have a chance to turn it into Right activity.  All else is madness.

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