#019 - Good intentions aren't good enough
Welcome to Issue #019 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
✍️ Insights: Simply having good intentions about improving a system isn't enough and risks making the situation worse.
🤔 Made me think: Which Jenga block is the one that the whole system rests on?
👨💻 Worth checking out: Why you're required to open window blinds on planes.
Simply having good intentions about improving a system isn't enough and risks making the situation worse.
If there was a proverb that was generally true about delivering change projects, one would be "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".
If you consider what a consultant does for their client, the top-ranked responses would include riffs about challenging the status quo, sharing insights, and driving the reforms needed for modernisation.
Combine all the above together, you can quickly find yourself in a situation where you're making changes for the best of intentions, yet causing more problems than you're solving.
This is exacerbated by consultants typically having an alpha mindset where they think, of course, they know better. The ones who fervently believe what they propose must be right for the client and barely consider that they might be wrong.
And especially so when the client is in a crisis and needs something, anything to be done right now.
But, as history teaches us, if you're not aware of the wider consequences then you're going to be taught a painful and expensive lesson.
Two lessons on not appreciating how change can ripple out
In the 1920s the United States ratified the 18th amendment and prohibited the manufacture, importation, transport, or sale of alcohol. The rationale was well-intentioned as proponents sought to curb alcoholism, reduce crime, and improve social morals. 13 years later, it was repealed because of all the unintended consequences.
Interestingly, whilst Prohibition was in force, it didn't prohibit the consumption of alcohol.
So, instead reducing or stopping people drinking it just displaced where people drank and who they got the drink from. As a result, there were a series of unexpected and unwanted side-effects. These all played a part in this "great experiment" being generally seen as a failure:
Whilst crime was meant to fall, organised crime expanded their activities and influence. They now had a new, lucrative, yet illegal revenue stream.
Whilst liver cirrhosis deaths (a proxy for alcoholism) did fall, production of alcohol was now unregulated and could contain toxic chemicals. It's estimated that 10,000+ people died during this period.
Whilst the rate of absenteeism fell and worker production increased, the economic cost from the forced closure of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and stores was high. And that was before including the loss from alcohol taxes.
🤔 Fun fact: One of the few legal ways to get alcohol was with a medical prescription. This, naturally, was abused with more than 6 million such prescriptions issued. One of the beneficiaries of this legal loophole was a small pharmacy chain called Walgreens which went from 20 stores to 500 during this period. Today there are 8,800+ in the US.
McDonald's premium burgers
In the 2010s McDonald's believed that by offering a customisable gourmet burger they could target more upscale customers.
Their first attempt was the Create Your Taste menu which lasted 3 years before being phased out. The second attempt was the Signature Crafted Recipes menu which was a simplified version. That only lasted two years before being being dropped.
Critically, to make room for these menus, they had to alter their existing kitchen operations. The same kitchen operations they've been optimising for 40+ years for their regular menu. So, inevitably, these changes slowed down their regular menu service.
Making matters worse, a bespoke burger will always take more time to send out than a standardised burger. Especially, if you had 30 options on the Create Your Taste menu. Even on the Signature Crafted Recipes menu which had a simplified set of options
All of which frustrated their regular customers who prioritised speed and price. They didn't need a better quality bespoke burger that took too long and was too expensive. They especially didn't want to wait longer for their regular order because it was held up by someone else's personalised burger.
A customer satisfaction killer as most of their US business is drive-through and minimising wait time is everything.
Understand what you're changing
Before rushing in where "angels fear to tread" and sacrificing the sacred cows held dear by the client, it's critical to understand what exactly you're changing.
To do that, you need to understand not just what it's as-is state is but why it's in that state. In other words, what's the long and sordid history of how it came to be built the way it was and why it works in the idiosyncratic way that it does. The answer may not be easy to find but that's no excuse for not even trying.
A good starting point is to use Rudyard Kipling's poem "I Keep Six Honest Serving Men" to ask: what, why, when, how, where, and who.
In one project, where I was working to replace one Request For Proposal system with another, this was the initial set of questions I covered for each major feature of the existing system:
What does Feature X cover and not cover?
Why does Feature X work in the way it does?
When in the various processes does Feature X get used?
How do different users interact with Feature X?
Where does the information for Feature X get pulled from and go to?
Who is involved in using and maintaining Feature X?
Using the answers provided, I then asked more questions to peel back the layers of surface understanding to get to the underlying truth. Sometimes, it was riffing on existing questions to reveal a potentially different response. Other times, it was drilling into a specific point to see if that contained the proverbial "can of worms".
For example: if Feature X feeds information to System A, then how does it know when to do that and what format does it take?
All to help me build as full a picture as I could of how it all connected together and to reveal what hidden dependencies or trade-offs there were. That's the knowledge you need to have to start appreciating the ripple effects of the changes you want to do.
“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ | Dalai Lama XIV
🤔 Made me think
Which Jenga block is the one that the whole system depends on?
Every time I do a brownfield project (i.e. one where there's an existing system that I need to fix or upgrade), I'm always wondering if I get rid of or replaced X component, is that the Jenga block that's going to bring the whole system crashing down.
🧑💻Worth checking out
🔗 Why you're required to open window blinds on planes | Lonely Planet
There are many rules that are seemingly pointless.
One of them is keeping your windows blinds open during take-off or landing. It might seem an annoying rule to ignore, especially when you're trying to get to sleep, but it's an important safety measure.
With the window blinds open, each person sat on a window seat is now an extra set of eyes for anything that looks wrong. Such as noticing the right engine being on fire during take-off.
You can read more at Lonely Planet.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts for me.