Do Something!

Added 14 January 2016

Do Something!

The odd-even arrangement for private cars on Delhi roads has brought appreciation from some quarters for the authorities “doing something” about pollution on the roads. This is in line with a popular admonishment we have heard often in many other contexts – “Don’t just stand there; Do something.” So, the Delhi government has done something.

Governments work on the premise that inaction on their part will be swiftly and vehemently punished. They could be forgiven if they are seen as even ‘trying’ to fix things. “Something has got to be done” when you have your backs against the walls, and you have run out of all other options. It is hitting out blindly at your fear.

Knee-jerk reactions to competitor moves, bad quarterly results and shifts in market behaviours have been seen from even respectable companies. The stakeholders of these companies such as existing customers, partners and shareholders want the company to be seen as meeting the ‘must do something’ or ‘seen to be doing something’ requirements.

The first guy left 3 months ago and subsequently two more decided to move on, from the Manager’s team. Yesterday, two junior executives, who have been in the company for less than a year, went up the Manager’s boss, and expressed their intention to leave. The boss called the manager, and told her, “Do something.” She called the rest of the team, and asked for frank feedback – something she had never done before with her team. They poured out all that had been bottled up, and the Manager was left shaken and devastated.

If the Manager had regularly sought feedback, and heard her team members out, she may not have got pushed to go and “Do Something”. Moral of the story: when you ‘Do Something’ because you are cornered into ‘Doing Something’, the results are always what you did not want. Whether by managers or governments, a flurry of unexplained activity means fear, insecurity and worse, creating a smoke-screen to hide behind. “Action without Vision merely passes the time” warns Joel Barker.

Maybe we should take lessons from Ethnography, where we propagate the opposite behaviour – “Don’t Just Do Something; Stand There.” The best product ideas in the world have happened when people became a fly-on-the-wall, and watched life as it is lived. From these observations, the areas for improvement suggest themselves. The product and its features will then reflect a clear way of improving the current way of doing things quicker or better. When you stand there, immerse yourself in all the nuances of how life unfolds itself, and watch with interest the responses of people who are touched by the ebb and flow of mere existence, you become filled with wonder and wisdom.

We are told that Nokia decided to add a torch to their phones after watching truck drivers in India. With majority of Indian men using water in a cup or bowl to shave their facial hair, Gillette provided a button on their razors to increase the space between the blades to fully clean the soap/hair that gets stuck between the blades. These are ideas that earned a billion dollars because they came from watching life. They were not unilaterally born in the company’s R & D Labs.

There is a lesson here for governments who wish to provide the best-in-class citizen services. They need to understand how the citizens’ lives pan out and where the gaps are. For example, the Delhi government may have done well to start with the basic premise that roads are meant to move people, and not vehicles. When the patience, intent or competence to understand the real needs are not there, governments use bans – “you are banned from doing this’, “you cannot do that”, “we will not permit this” and so on.

Dr. Laurence J Peter, the Canadian educator who formulated the Peter’s Principle, explains why simply ‘doing something’ is wrong:

There are two kinds of failures: those who thought and never did, and those who did and never thought. 

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