Tuesday, 16 December 2014 00:00

Why Do Things the Hard Way

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Why do things the hard way? The hard way takes more time, requires more effort, is usually frustrating, is more prone to error and generally doesn't work as well. The hard way is more likely to involve rework and unnecessary conflict.

Does anyone of sound mind consciously decide to do things the hard way? It usually happens because they didn't plan effectively or they followed an approach without assessing its quality. Often doing things the hard way over and over again happens because no one takes the time to learn from experience or question the status quo. Sometimes, however, people take a harder way because it minimizes risk, making it the easy way under some circumstances. Sometimes the hard way is chosen for the challenge or as an experiment to see if it is better than some other way.

Effective Planning

Effective planning means taking the time and effort to identify the optimal approach for doing what you want to do, laying out the tasks, roles and responsibilities and figuring out the time it will take and how much it will cost. It includes assessing and managing risk and establishing procedures. Planning, appropriately scaled, applies not only to big projects but to just about anything you want to do, from the simplest tasks to the largest programs. Identifying the optimal approach, the best way, implies looking at alternatives. Effective planning makes sure you don't do things the hard way.

The key principle is to think about what you want to do and how best to do it. Often, it seems that "just doing it" is the easy way. And, for the moment that may very well be so. All the thinking, communicating, and the time and effort needed to explore different approaches, lay out the steps, identify dependencies and all the rest are bypassed. So why not just do the work and get it done? The answer is that "just doing" the work may lead to doing things the hard way and not only once but perpetually. The question to ask is "what is the cost and risk of not consciously deciding on the best way to proceed before proceeding?"

Working with Best Practices and SOPs

Doing tasks for the first time is a challenge. Planning in this case includes taking the time to find a best practice or standard operating procedure (SOP). These are left by others who have performed similar work previously. It is like reading the instructions for putting a new gadget together before diving in to doing it. If you read the instructions you might avoid frustrating rework or realize that a prescribed sequence of steps makes the job easier or maybe that a part or tool you will need is missing.

If there is no SOP or set of instructions, then you are on your own to find a best way to proceed. The first time you perform the task you might be doing it the hard way. Without a baseline for comparison you really can't tell. You can still plan, laying out different scenarios, modeling the work to see how it might turn out under diffent conditions.

Afterwards, you can reflect on how it went and identify specific places where you think you could have done it better. Write it all down and leave a record for the next person to use. The next person could very well be you coming back to the task after enough time to have forgotten how you did it the first time. By reflecting on and communicating about your experience, you make it possible for the next person to do the task to take the easy way.

But of course, SOPs and best practices are not always perfect or even very good at all. Sometimes you do things the hard way because you follow SOPs or apply so-called best practices. There is a need to use your discretion, if the situation allows for that. When you come to a step that looks as if following the SOP is not going to be productive, don't do it. Let your intuition, informed by your experience and intelligence be your guide and go off the beaten path, experimenting with alternatives. Ideally, after you are finished, you will leave comments on the SOP to make life easier for those who follow.

If the situation dos not allow for deviation from SOPs, then sometimes the best you can do is to critique the SOP after the fact and do what you can to have it changed.

Working With Complex Plans

When working with complex projects there maybe a methodology and/or project plan templates. There may also be plans and archives of past projects that are similar to yours. These can minimize the time and effort required for planning. However, as with SOPs and best practices, the old way may not be the best way.

The more complex a project is the more likely it is that there are unique aspects that require skillfully charting a new course through changing conditions, individual differences in stakeholder personalities, experience and skill levels.

Creativity, risk assessment and remediation, and the mindful use of past experience taken together are likely result in finding the best way forward.

The Best Way Is Not Always the Easiest Way

You might ask if the best way is always the easiest way.

The answer is not so simple. It depends on how you define best, hard and easy. Here I define the best way as the the way that leads to the desired result with the least amount of time, cost and effort, and with reasonable risk. It is the right way, where right means optimal for the current situation. The easy way is the way that minimizes effort, stress and frustration. The hard way, as stated earlier, is the way that takes more time, requires more effort, is usually frustrating to yourself and others, is more prone to error and generally doesn't work as well. The hard way is more likely to involve rework and unnecessary conflict.

The Risk Factor

The risk factor is significant. Doing things in what seems to be the easiest way may open you up to risks that could be avoided or minimized by adding some extra work. For example, the easy way may be easy 70% of the time but 30% of the time it turns out to be either a hard way or the wrong way. Sometimes what seems to be the easiest way runs the risk of hitting a roadblock like not complying with some regulation or policy, getting caught and having to take the time and effort to satisfy the administrators who caught you. The easy way turns out to be the hard way. The hard way, (following the defined process) turns out to be the easiest way.

Sometimes taking the easy way turns out to be deadly, as it was in the many instances of people ignoring potentially dangerous circumstances, like ignoring warnings about the 'O' Ring that brought down the space shuttle Challenger.

Some might argue that it is easier to measure once and then cut. Best practices say measure multiple times before cutting. Paradoxically, It is harder initially, but overall it is the easy way.

The Goal

Doing things the best way is the goal. The best way may seem to be more difficult than its alternatives, but it is worth the extra time, cost and effort. It minimizes rework and risk and is an optimal fit for the situation at hand. So don't take the easy way out, and, at the same time don't do it the hard way, if you can help it. Plan, judiciously follow best practices and SOPs, and consider risk to find the best way to proceed. Monitor progress and be ready to change course as needed.

Reflect on what you have done and learn from experience, passing the learning on to others.

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