“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is Broken

"Break on Through" by gorillaradio
"Break on Through" by gorillaradio

In today’s #lrnchat on “Tools of the Trade” we ran through a number of topical questions related to how we find out about, select and replace tools for learning in our organizations.

In a discussion of how we replace tools, a tweet came up:

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

This pattern of thought is fundamentally flawed, in many of the same ways that an Org Chart is flawed.  Codifying these things, putting them into review cycles that are predetermined makes a lot of sense if the conditions on which they’re meant to serve remain static.  Over time, any solution one implements is going to become too rigid to be useful to the purpose for which it is employed.  In other words, assuming that something is “fixed” implies that it is no longer “broke.”

“Fixed” in and of itself is an interesting word, with a lot of loaded connotations. Fixed could mean repaired, it could mean stationary, it can mean focused. All of these words imply at the root that they are static, rigid, not prone to ever change.  How many of us are in some kind of work facing the same markets, the same customers, the same market conditions, the same ways of dealing with those customers as five years ago? Three years ago? Heck, even last year? We’re experiencing major shifts and while the aim of what we do maybe should be our compass (our learning goals, what we want to accomplish, what trail we want to leave behind us), the tools we use to navigate these challenging waters have to at least help us with the tides. A fixed anchor helps us stay centered when waters are calm, but in a rising tide, it probably would keep us submerged.

How many of us are learning, for ourselves, with the same means that we learned five years ago? How many of us are depending more and more on our capacity to network to find relevant, just-in-time information that we need (or want)?

My problem with the notion of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is that it blinds us from real problems, and we keep pushing off the “fixing” of things that are sorely in need of repair because we continually lower the bar (especially in organizational learning — it’s observation, not opinion) of defining what “broke” means.  The very phrase puts us in an ideational trap (surprise, I’m back to General Semantics today) that perpetuates bad situations into becoming worse situations.

The next time someone tells me “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” I think I’m going to ask them to define, in writing, what “broke” means? What’s the criteria that we’re looking for? When is it okay to finally have a functioning organization?

I know there are going to be reactions to this that basically will say, “but Aaron, we can’t just be learning new tools or new ways of doing things all the time?” First of all, we can and we do learn new tools and new ways of doing things all the time, and that’s an awesome thing.  People collaborate together, negotiate each others’ knowledge and experiences and toolsets to determine how to work together productively — this happens all the time, even if it’s invisible from the top-down.

I understand that organizationally, there are many good reasons for choosing tools and processes and sticking with them. What I would challenge, and I think it’s a reasonable challenge, is that even while we select a tool or we agree on a process, we should constantly be challenging ourselves and our peers: can we do it better?

We should be fixing things all the time — this is my point.  How can we compete, how can we grow, how can we learn if we’re not making ourselves, our spheres of influence, our organizations better CONTINUOUSLY?

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