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notes from JK

The obvious trap

We’ve probably all been there at work: A project, product or system is blindingly, painfully wrong – the better way is obvious. For a former business partner of mine, who’d trained in hospitality, it was the dire way in which the restaurant we were eating in was running their service, presenting their food, decorating the rooms and so on. Not always the most appetising topic of conversation!

I’m certainly guilty of this too. I’ve often felt it was self-evident that prioritising sustainable modes of transport was the right thing to do for the environment, air quality and citizens’ overall benefit. Or on seeing a carbuncle horror of a legacy IT system I would be struck with how terrible it was, and how obviously better the alternative could be.

But of course what is ‘obvious’ to you or I, isn’t really that obviously better or right to everyone else. If it was, we wouldn’t still be talking about what to do with internal combustion engine cars and we wouldn’t still be discussing why that expensive enterprise software can’t recognise part time working patterns (or replace with your own favourite example).

When I reflect on my own failings in this area, I think it comes down to a failure of empathy: I make a series of incorrect assumptions which become blockers: Firstly, I assume that everyone knows about the ‘obvious’ better way and why it should be better. Secondly, in feeling ‘righteous’ about the better way I’m bringing to the conversation, I fail to listen well enough to understand why things ended up the way they are.

In my experience gross incompetence, or intentional malicious behaviour is rarely the cause. If this is genuinely the cause, tough as it can be, there are usually at least clear procedures to follow to resolve matters and hold people accountable.

Most times, however, the reality is it’s usually complicated. Most people want to do a good job when they come to work. But perhaps they work in a culture and system which doesn’t give them permission to think. Or there is a quasi-religious faith in a particular methodology which is utterly unsuited to the task in hand. In many cases, if one can put the ‘obvious’ thoughts to the back of your mind, deep listening will reveal a multitude of dynamics such as: An obsession with multi-year business cases which kills agile working dead; a failure to invest in staff development leaving teams ignorant of what works versus what sells or simply too many masters to please leading to a book-length list of requirements for a supplier.

Then the even harder task comes of challenging ourselves to let go of what we think is ‘obviously better’. In truth, for complex work, one person’s ideas will never be enough. Service users, the community and more all need to be included in the thinking, creating and discovering.

I’m not arguing against having high expectations of ourselves and our colleagues. Absolutely not, expecting the best and more from each other is great. I’m also not suggesting we should let obviously rude or abusive behaviour pass, no that needs to be challenged straight up. What I’m proposing is we might do better work if we let go of our perceived notions of ‘obvious’ so that we can hear and do better.

PS The wonderful Pen Thompson taught me to ‘never assume’. This blog shows that’s still a work in progress for me. It’s a very good rule to work from, ‘never assume’.

One reply on “The obvious trap”

Hi J! Have you come across Bloom’s 2016 book “Against Empathy”? He makes the compelling case that empathy is an impossible ideal that in practice is little more than a well meaning but rather arrogant form of presumption, and that the most we can strive for rational compassion.

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