Worst first?

The other day I was reading an article about road construction and maintenance (don’t ask – it will be safer). The article was fascinating in it’s description of how different generations have approached the road surface requirements of their transport. (No really it was). However as I figure I don’t have many civil engineers amongst my readership I’ll skip to the bit that really got me thinking.

The writer was interviewing a construction manager who repairs roads and he bemoaned the fact that the key policy they operate is “Worst first”. It means that they do the big, obvious jobs first. Which is fine up to a point but leaves underlying problems to build up. Sound familiar to anyone?

He also talked about the problem of reflection cracks. It’s probably best if I quote the guy as it gets a bit technical.

“The reflection crack is, to my eyes, a standard, unremarkable scar. To Harvey, though, it is a deep and persistent puzzle. Reflection cracks originate below the surface of the road, in the lower layers. The math* problem of reflection cracks, he says, is hard to understand, but necessary to solve. ‘By the time you’re out there filling potholes with a shovel,’ he says, ‘you’re digging a grave. The patient is already dead.’ “

As I read this it struck me how often we (and by that I mean both organisations and individuals) go after the quick wins. We solve the biggest, most obvious problem and hope that does the job. In reality though we are often “papering over the cracks”, and like our construction manager found, those cracks will eventually show up and by then it is too late.

This thought has relevance in all kinds of work. As a coach I often find that clients want to engage me to “fix” an employee as they have identified a problem they want corrected. In conversation with the coachee we find a very different need. Generally our combined attention on the cracks means that there is no longer a problem to fix. It’s about digging down in to the coachee’s needs at a deeper level, understanding their identity and who they are / want to be, which allows behaviour to change.

So that was from a single person perspective but what about organisationally? Whilst we deal with big obvious problems what is happening to the rest of the business? In several of the companies I worked in, those who shouted loudest got the most attention / funding and consumed the most time with the silent majority getting overlooked. If we viewed that through the Pareto Principle, that would mean 20% of your task load taking 80% of your resources. Now I’m not suggesting that’s necessarily accurate but it stopped me in my tracks.

Now it’s the time of year we all reflect and perhaps plan for the new year ahead so my challenge to you is to examine where you might be getting distracted by the “worst first” principle. What cracks are you missing and what will you do in 2013 to make sure that you maintain your road for smooth easy traffic?

* It was an American article so “math” was a direct quote.



About Jon Bartlett

I'm a coach, blogging on things that occur to me, that I want to share and any other fun stuff I find lying around in the real world.
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