I often write about the soft skills associated with Leadership. This post is going to be a little more tactical. So, if you only remember one thing about this post I want you to remember:

“Stop doing dumb things.”

Dumb things in my days as a Project Manager

Have you ever created a project schedule for a creative process? I spent nearly 15 years trying to perfect this skill.

I don’t want to brag, but over the years of learning to work with the data and tools I was a master at building detailed schedules (seriously, I am not bragging about this). My schedules would contain hundreds of detailed tasks.

I would gather the input needed, structure the schedule, then carefully balanced everyone’s time. My intention was to ensure we fully utilized everyone’s time.

Lots of people claimed you couldn’t do what I was doing with the tools. However, by continually learning how the tools worked I was able to overcome many of the limitations people were complaining about.

Despite learning to use the tools so masterfully, I was ignoring an important fact that was right in front of me the whole time. The schedule’s accuracy is not proportional to my skills. In fact, in a creative process, the level of accuracy is always low.

I think I knew this reality and yet I kept trying to improve my skills. At the time I thought creating accurate schedules was expected of me. Certainly management seemed to take great comfort when I delivered such a robust schedule.

Why did the schedule need such massive updates every week, when it’s such an important and reliable activity. It must have been my skill, so perhaps an advanced scheduling course would help (I even went to the PMI College of Scheduling Conference one year).

Despite this inner knowing, I put the effort in anyway. I never questioned the validity of what I was doing.

The evolution of dumb things

Most companies don’t start with people doing too many dumb things. More accurately, they don’t start out hanging on to the dumb things. When startups hang on to the dumb things, they tend to limit their ability to succeed. Not good.

The more significant problem start as a company grows and becomes increasingly successful. When things go wrong, and they always do, companies add process in response to the problems. Adding process is often done in the name of efficiency, predictability or some other reason.

While adding a process might sound like the right thing to do, often processes are the easy way out. Or, at least it might feel that way. Too often, a process is created to avoid dealing with the messy human stuff.

When problems or upsets come into your life, it’s natural to feel some level of anxiety. Anxiety can be uncomfortable, but moving through this anxiety is the only way to improve. A process is an easy answer to avoiding anxiety now and in the future.

Over time the company continues to evolve and layer on processes. Often you will find layers upon layers of process. Eventually, they’ve lost sight of why they are doing what they’re doing. They only know what they’re doing which is to follow the process.

We have no choice

I once worked with an IT shop who was struggling to get decent results. To make matters worse, they had gotten in trouble with the regulators over the past number of years.

There are many reasons behind their reality. The relevant one for this post was their beliefs around what they had to do for the regulators.

They had developed a rigorous set of process requirements the team had to follow. Failure to follow them was a severe offence in their mind and was the cause of unhealthy conflicts.

Despite the rigid process, the team was being pushed to improve how they worked. The conflict is that the team wanted to make little tweaks to their process continually. Some of the tweaks worked, and others could be chalked up to failed experiments.

To even make small tweaks to the process the team was required to submit documentation. The documentation needed to explain the reason for the change, what they were going to change, etc. The team was to continue doing the old way until the documented change was submitted and approved,

Such rigid processes are not a recipe for improvement nor success. The team’s ended up doing a lot of things behind the scenes instead of going through the approval process. It amounted to a passive aggressive move on their part.

Does your leadership have them trapped?

If your people are knowingly doing dumb things, it can be for different reasons.

One of the most common reasons I’ve seen people knowingly do dumb things is they don’t believe they have a choice. Feeling you have no choice and doing it anyways is the mindset of obligation.

Having people do things out of obligation can give management comfort the right things will happen. I hear it all the time, with managers adamant the process is the only way to get quality outcomes. What happens when the process is wasteful or flawed?

The other favourite I frequently hear is, “but that’s the way we’ve always done it around here.” It’s the world’s most prevalent justification for why you have and are powerless to do anything about a problem.

There are many reasons your people will knowingly do dumb things. However, this doesn’t mean they’re bad people. All it means is they are human, and their natural mindsets are at play.

As a leader, your job is to create the conditions for success. In the case of people knowingly doing dumb things, wouldn’t you want to know?

The practical part of me also knows that sometimes you will be faced with something out of your control. In other words, you think it’s wasteful but to not do it would only get you in trouble.

I would discourage the use of any passive aggressive moves. Do not give the appearance of complying while doing something under the covers. Passive aggressive moves are wrong and will lead to burnout as you and your team try to keep up.

Instead, what is it you can do to start influencing a change? Odds are if you’re feeling this way, there are likely more people feeling the same way.

So, yes, stop doing dumb things. When you can’t stop or change things immediately, what can you do to keep nudging change forward?