Management Skills: First, Do No Harm

img_2763Has it ever occurred to you that not only are you not doing a good job at work, but maybe you are actually making things worse? I think it’s a really good question to ask yourself, especially if you’re a manager. The answer might not be so obvious.

You can learn a lot from working with doctors. I’ve learned that the number one rule medicine is “First, do no harm“. Primum non nocere in Latin. It’s in the Hippocratic Oath and one of the founding principles of medical ethics.

Maybe “do no harm” should be the number one rule of management too. I mean think about it. How many times have you seen bosses make things worse in the workplace? I’ve seen a manager get canned for stealing and another for harassing employees and one bankrupt a competitor for buying too much inventory, but I’m not really talking about that kind of stuff. What about the times when people have good intentions and they are still making things worse, whether they realize it or not?

I know I have done it. I have asked people to fill out cumbersome spreadsheets to report on work that they had already done, a waste of time. I have asked people to focus their attention on what turned out to be the wrong areas, which led to inferior results. I have hired the wrong people, and others times I have held onto the wrong people too long, a drain on the culture and performance. I always had the right intentions, but sometimes I did more harm than good. Could I have avoided these errors in my past? Can I avoid them now and in the future?

A team is a lot like an organism. Teams are complex interconnected systems, and interfering with one part of the team affects the whole unit. This is very important to understand: meddling in complex systems comes with unintended consequences. The bigger and more complicated the system, the harder it is to predict the downstream impact of your actions. It’s for this reason that the higher you climb the ladder the more carefully you have to consider the unintended consequences of your actions.

But businesses, like everything else in the universe, naturally fall apart, and only through the action and energy of leaders can they grow. The human body needs exercise or it falls ill. Cars and homes need maintenance and oil changes or they fall apart. Work teams need leadership. So inaction is not an option. Managers have to act, and act aggressively and swiftly, almost always with incomplete information.

Now you can see the problem. If managers don’t act their businesses fall apart. But meddling with complex systems carelessly often does more harm than good. This paradox explains why we can all easily recall times when managers have made the businesses they are supposed to be helping much worse. How can we find a way out of this trap? Let’s turn to medicine for the answers.

First, medicine is a craft. Medicine is something that you have to formally study for a long time just to get started, followed by a period of apprenticeship, followed by a lifetime of actively trying to get better and better. Leadership is a craft. It’s not something you run into heedlessly. You have to formally study, and then find a master who will accept you as their apprentice. You have to work hard for many many years, always trying to get better, always learning from your many failures, always studying the works of the great masters who came before you. This is how you develop the instincts to act in a way that makes a real positive difference. This has been my approach to leadership. It’s why I’ve sought out mentors and why I am always reading. It’s why I went back on got my MBA, and why I still act like a student of the craft today, nearly 15 years into my journey.

Second, doctors are scientists. What are scientists like? Scientists act based on the canon of knowledge that other scientists built, standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before them. And when good scientists experiment with progressing that canon of knowledge, they should do so humbly and carefully, using the scientific method. That’s why your doctor doesn’t try radical new procedures on you that they thought up in the shower that morning. The scientific method requires a hypothesis, testing, empirical results, and repeatability. I try to intervene as a manager in the same way. What do are the interventions that we already know work? What actions have proven time and time again to make the business better? If we’re going to be innovative, we should be evolutionary (as opposed to revolutionary), develop a hypothesis that is in line with our vision and values, test it carefully, honestly measure the results, and then try to scale our new program.

Lastly, medicine is an art. That’s what the doctors on my team tell me. Art involves technique and form, and also style, perspective, subjectivity, and passion. Leadership is an art too. Remember the paradox – we need to act but we have incomplete and imperfect information. It’s in the space between these two opposing forces where art mixes with science. Leadership is finding the balance between action and patience, between the tried and true and innovation, between logic and passion. I’ve been so inspired by veterinarians in this regard. Vets aren’t in it for the money, they’re in it for the art and for the love of those they serve. We have that in common.

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