Management Anti-Pattern: The definition of insanity

Making a change is taking a chance. Choose well.
Making a change is taking a chance. Choose well.
Making a change is taking a chance. Choose well.

Short version: The definition of insanity might be doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Or it might be doing an untested new thing and expecting better results just because it is new.

Generalized: Do not assume that people resisting a change are resisting all change.

Ultra-specific request of managers: Explain the reason for change without focusing just on what lack of change is and assuming that is “good enough”.

I was talking to my manager about team workflow changes which were rolled out with a lack of:

  • transparency
  • definition
  • cost/benefit analysis

He told me, “I was brought in to make change. As we know, the system was not working when I arrived. As Einstein said,” and then he said that old chestnut:

“The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

First, there is no attribution of this quote to Einstein, no matter how many times it gets attributed to him. (I didn’t point this out to my manager).

However, it is important, when citing this quote, to consider the logic and some variations.

This 360-degree view will help illustrate how applying this quote in an incorrect way can lead to “doing the same thing over and over again” at a meta-level:

  • Original definition of insanity: If you try the same thing over and over again, then expect the same results.
  • Converse: If you expect the same results, then try the same thing over and over again.
  • Inverse: If you do not try the same thing over and over again, then do not expect the same results.
  • Contrapositive: If you do not expect the same results, then do not try the same thing over and over again.

Absolutely nothing here says different results will be better results.

I’m an engineer. A defined workflow will produce the same results over and over again. I grok idempotency.

So by definition a changed workflow will produce different results.

The problem is: are those different results worth the change?

Put differently: isn’t another definition of insanity, trying anything different and expecting better results?

Repeatedly hammering a screw into a wall hoping to remove the screw is bad.

Taking a screwdriver [a better tool] and screwing the screw into the wall further while hoping to remove it is also bad.

In both cases, the net result is driving the screw farther into the wall, not removing the screw.

In the first case, you keep trying the same thing. In the second case, you try something different. However, trying something different in the second case cannot be justified solely on the basis of doing something different.

I can hear an argument: the second approach brings you closer to removing the screw because you can now use the screwdriver to unscrew the screw.

However, if you are choosing without consideration of change-management and cost/benefit analysis, I contend you are almost as likely to end up applying a larger hammer to the screw as trying a screwdriver.

I would have preferred my manager explain his reasoning behind his decision differently.

I would have preferred he:

  • discuss the comparative differences between the approaches and explain the gains from the new approach
  • not assume I wanted to keep the exact same approach — I was open to change
  • not used “insanity” in this context
  • not attributed this quote to Einstein, when there is no proof Einstein originated it

Epigraph: The team workflow and organization change was directly responsible for failure on some major projects.

I got blamed for it.

Who am I?

As someone with over two decades of leadership experience in the tech world, I still make mistakes. I have a treasure trove of anti-patterns I’ve either seen or exercised myself.

In short, I know the good stories. Don’t assume my stories are from my current place of employment. Odds are they are not.

I’m a senior data engineer experienced in Python and various SQL flavors, a process improver, a leader/manager, and someone who wants employee experiences to improve.

I hope you enjoy reading the articles in the Leadership Anti-Pattern series as much I enjoy writing them.

Resident of Frogpondia.

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