Monthly Archives: July 2011

If It Were Easy, It Might Still Remain Undone

Don’t underestimate the number of problems that can be solved by expending slightly more effort and attention than your predecessors did .

“If it were easy, it would be done already.”

This is something I hear frequently. On the face of things, it sounds reasonable Рsomething a been-around-the-block veteran says to the starry-eyed newcomer who has yet to be introduced to reality. It puts the arrogant in their place, reminding them that they are not so much smarter / better / more motivated than those who came before them. It bespeaks practicality, and a certain worldly wisdom.

Often, it is just flat wrong.

Granted, one can reasonably expect that a valuable goal which has remained unattained will be attended by non-trivial obstacles. However, that is the sort of thing you bear in mind so as to temper your expectations – not the sort of thing that should slow you down in advance of locating and confronting those obstacles. The “if it were easy” refrain is more likely to be a catchphrase of complacency than a sign of sagacity. It is used as warrant for the worst kind of failure, the kind that comes from never even trying to succeed.

What suggests that you can achieve a goal that has remained unrealized, in spite of many competent predecessors?

  • Even good people tend to buy into organizational myths about how difficult things are or the reasons that such-and-such won’t work. The people before you might not have even tried to solve the problem because they were sold the same “if it were easy” notion. This dynamic becomes progressively self-reinforcing as more people come to brand a particular problem as hard, longstanding, etc. Such branding creates a kind of inertia that is difficult to overcome, and helps to explain why new faces are often able to make tremendous changes to an organization in a short amount of time – they have yet to be introduced to the contents of the “don’t bother” list.
  • Even good people get lazy sometimes – the problem you’re looking at may be one of those areas where nobody competent has ever really rolled up their sleeves yet.
  • You can’t tend to every problem – maybe nobody has quite gotten around to this one at all yet. (Don’t trust the organizational historians who say otherwise, unless they can credibly explain why your predecessors stopped short of the goal line.)
  • Achievements are incremental – the blockers that kept your target goal from being realized in the past may have been recently removed by a new information system, org structure, business rule change, etc. You might be the first one to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before you, and do full justice to their achievements by building upon them.

Plenty of easy (or at least very manageable) things that are worth doing remain undone in every organization, and you’re not tilting at windmills just because you don’t accept the blithe alibis of those who don’t want to bother expending some uncommon effort. What’s relatively easy may very well remain undone. However, what’s already done is bound to be even easier, which is why so many people avoid the risks and uncertainties that attend meaningful progress.

Anticipation vs Explication

Any smart person can come up with a plausible¬†explanation of something after the fact – you’re adding real value when you can predict an outcome in advance.

Casey Anthony was just found innocent of the murder of her daughter. Almost everybody, professional and layperson alike, thought she would be convicted.

Almost immediately, the pundits weighed in with explanations – the prosecution went too far, they said, in pushing for first degree murder. The evidence wasn’t strong enough for a first degree conviction, the prosecutors had overreached, a lesser charge would have been more appropriate, etc.

However, the prosecution had wrapped up its case weeks before the acquittal. If the pundits saw a mismatch between the charges and the evidence, they could have piped up then. Yet, most said nary a word about this, because they did not see it as an issue at the time. They, like the rest of the world, foresaw a conviction.

When the stunning acquital came, they were quick to manufacture reasons. These reasons made sense, in a way, but once you know how a story ends, it’s relatively easy for an intelligent person to select a set of facts and inferences that leads toward the outcome, and weave these together into an explanation of what happened. It’s much harder (and more valuable) to weave together the facts and probabilities in advance, and correctly divine an outcome before the movie ends.

The world needs more psychics and prophets – we have enough Monday morning quarterbacks and plausible explanations that come when the punchline is already obvious.