Why the Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Yesterday, I had a short discussion on my blog entry “Two common leadership anti-patterns: Urgency as Blame and Busyness as Heroism” with a friend. He basically asked “do I think that managers are malevolent?” Well, I do not, and I don’t say so in that entry. The text was a critique of systems, it wasn’t at all a critique of people per se. Also this this text is a critique of systems: I’m talking the social and cultural systems around us and the psychological and ideological systems inside us.

If a system is dysfunctional, all the good intentions (within that system) may turn out harmful things. If this is obvious for you, there’s very little truly new in the next ~900 words – just some macabre, black humor.

Imagine a benevolent surgeon, who was raised in a family of excellent carpenters. Almost before he learnt to walk, his parents taught him to make wood sculptures with knife, saw, hammer and chisel. Less than decade after the first sculptures, people could only wonder his outstanding skills to cut wood, so stunningly beautiful were the sculptures. The only reason why he didn’t become a carpenter was the fact that he wanted to do more good than a carpenter can. Because he was so skillful in the use of the hands, he chose to become a surgeon. And so he did. Because the knife, saw, hammer and chisel were so good tools for cutting wood he thought that they would be equally good for cutting flesh. It was a catastrophe.

The good intentions in the wrong system won't make it work. Photos in the image are from Wikipedia and used according to their license:  Chisels: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cervo100.jpg; Surgery: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ijn_surgeon.JPG

Many managers seem to think that the good, objectively correct intentions (cf. intention to cut outstandingly well wood/flesh) are the key of good management. The related systems are oftentimes ignored, or conceived as something you cannot and should not change. If something goes wrong, they just need to try harder to be a good manager and intend good even more– like if trying that harder makes any difference. After all, usually, it isn’t their fault that their intentions didn’t lead the intended, good results. It’s no-one’s fault. The problem was that they tried to change something in a system that did not work as they thought it would.

If it isn’t a duck, it most likely won’t behave like a duck even if you kindly and modestly treat it as a duck. The same is true with different kind of systems.

For instance, a manager with genuinely good intentions may honestly believe that Parkinson’s Law is true: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I have met managers that honestly believe in that law, and that makes me sad.  Actually, I have failed once to explain clearly why Parkinson’s Law doesn’t work in this-and-that context. (Embarrassing.) The law was developed in the context of British governmental bureaucracy. It is based on Parkinson’s extensive experience in the British Civil Service. It might have worked in that context. Probably it did. That proves nothing, nonetheless. No-one claims that knife, saw, hammer and chisel don’t work as tools to cut wood, either. They are excellent tools for that kind of cutting.

But then again, there is strong evidence that Parkinson Law won’t work in creative, knowledge work (see e.g. DeMarco & Lister, 1999, PeopleWare). It won’t work in the same sense as knife, saw, hammer and chisel won’t work as surgeon’s tools for cutting flesh even if they are excellent tools for cutting wood: The system around an action (cutting with carpenter’s tools, leading according to Parkinson’s proposals) is wrong. So, the good intentions of manager of this example won’t make a difference. The reason is simple: If something (Parkinson’s Law) doesn’t work in the context of a system (creative knowledge work), it won’t work in that system no matter how good and pure are your intentions (e.g. sustainable, stabile workplace due to successful projects and satisfied customers) and how hard you try. The result can be what I described in “Two common leadership anti-patterns: Urgency as Blame and Busyness as Heroism“:

Also here, the manager most likely had good intentions, but he simply didn’t understand well enough how the system works. He didn’t ask where the distrust comes from. Or what impact the anxiety and stress in fact had to the team? Or why the projects are often late? And so on. He ignored the system, and focused on, say, his benevolent intent to make a good, profitable project. Probably, he thought that his experience is enough, and thus he need not learn more of the system.

A bad manager isn’t usually a bad or malevolent person. I’ve been told that there are malevolent managers but I know none personally. Usually, a bad manager isn’t stupid either like the surgeon who though that the carpenter’s tools would work equally well for cutting flesh and for cutting wood. He is just ignorant and too proud to pay really attention into systems. Therefore he need not to put his assumptions into testimony. He’s like a cottager who killed the goose that laid the golden eggs in Aesop’s Fable: he’s interested only in good results and a solution for current challenges, not the system that produced the current challenges and will produce the results. I call this “system-blindness”.

It’s not only the managers and management who are sometimes “system-blind” – everyone is. System-blindness is a global disease. It’s okay to be blind every now and then. You cannot avoid that. Yet, it’s ethically wrong to be blind only because opening your eyes would be too painful. Thus, intellectual honesty is a universal obligation. The system-blindness is probably the single biggest reason for suffering. E.g. I claim that the most people who have committed crimes in war, intended to do good but their hard attempt to be good in the wrong system turned against themselves – and against everyone.

This is why good intentions are not enough: A bad system has tendency to make good people accidentally malevolent and their good intentions accidentally devastating actions. The good intentions separated from the system are day dreaming. While day dreaming definitely has its place and value as a source of joy, motivation and creativity, it cannot be the key element in the way organizations are led and developed.