I remember growing up and hearing about childhood leukemia as a death sentence. The disease was so horrible that collections like the Jimmy Fund in Boston were founded to fight it (and other childhood cancers). I don’t remember when things changed, but over the years it has gone from being nearly 100% deadly to a very serious yet treatable disease.
I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath book. Though it cites the biblical story – and there are those who really should know that story – its focus is on debunking and countering well-founded associations people have formed between environmental factors and outcomes. It’s not just fascinating, it’s seminal reading. As an example, Gladwell tells the story that follows.
Emil J. (Jay) Freireich (also called Emil Frei III) was a kid who grew up in St. Louis. His father passed away when he was very young. He entered Colgate college with $25 in his pocket. He worked hard and earned his medical degree from Yale. He was not an agreeable person, with arguably horrible bedside manner and even worse relational skills with coworkers. But he was relentless.
When he began work at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, leukemia-ridden children would typically bleed to death. There was no stopping it; their blood was so diseased. Freireich studied the problem and started transfusing massively to restore platelets. Problem solved, bug fixed.
Treatment for the underlying condition was the choice of three drugs. Success rate was low. Against biting criticism and open opposition, Freireich experimented with combinations of all three. Then he found a fourth and added it also. The kids he treated would die differently but would die nonetheless. And quickly. But he kept on, until he got the combination right. Kids starting surviving, and then the cancer started going into remission.
Because of his persistent effort, childhood leukemia is treatable 90% of the time today.
Not too shabby, Dr. Freireich.
And a lesson to those who are holding back because of criticism and opposition – which are actually fear and envy. Push through. We all need you to.
And yeah, I pray for people like Jay Freireich. Because I don’t care whose hands are used to heal people.
I recently was called into a meeting to review an alternate approach to a technical problem I knew very well. The presenters smiled a lot, joked incessantly with one another (though not with their audience) and showed how their approach would deliver a solution faster than another other way. As I spoke with my management friends afterward, I didn’t even have to prompt their reactions. “It won’t work, not at scale” and “I don’t see this working” came from those who are not paid to be technically savvy.
Those reactions were right. And though the work is only beginning, the approach is not sound and is destined to known dysfunction and hand-waving, compromised workmanship. I don’t say that from an envious heart of “not invented here” but from the perspective of one who’s seen too much and too many fail for the same reasons.
The deep lure of the quick-fix has repeatedly astounded me. In the corporate world, it happens when those in power don’t understand the work it takes to produce goods and services and develop suspicion based upon reports of others who don’t understand the work. They come to the conclusion that they are over-paying and over-indulging their most productive workers.
But quick-fix can happen any time that impatience is adopted. Any group or leader can fall prey. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign was wildly successful because it attacked procrastination. What other footwear would you buy to attack your complacency? But projecting complacency, inefficiency and practical waste onto those who work hard and with integrity is misinformed.
Despite all the spin and Teflon-coating on those responsible yet not accountable, a quick-fix is very often disastrous.
This is not to say it’s easy to fight. Those prone to it want to be process heroes. And there is legitimate process evolution to be done. But it’s also the job of those who know quick-fix when they see it and are called to speak up. Here are some alternatives to offer:
- Planning and design. Eisenhower said “Plans are worthless but planning is everything” – meaning that contingencies can’t possibly be known beforehand but they can all be considered beforehand. An obvious and usually required phase of any project, but overlooked or partially done for quick-fix, the need to to brainstorm, write down and bat around the details of how the desired goals will be met is indispensable. The battle for doing planning/design is a hill to die on, truly.
- Do it right – quickly. Are there ways to correctly accomplish the task that get you and those waiting for you to the goal faster than traditional means. Nine women can’t have a baby in a month, but they can have nine babies in nine months. And that’s just citing parallel labor (intentional pun). A solid antidote to quick-fix is innovative process. Tools and technique, all that.
- Do it right – in phases. Software, even that in the Cloud, has the notion of releases or versions. For sure there is a bare minimum of what is viable – call that Release 1, which is never very useful. So you do need something that is standing, even on crutches, which meets impatient demands. But after that, amendments and replacements are less noticed but vital. You can even correct go-faster mistakes. Caveat – this does require buy-in from the powers that be who will be tempted to declare “all done” and move you on to other things before you are really “all done” – to their own discredit and at their own cost.
- Patience. When people cite their goals in their field of endeavor there is an implicit time line. And there is inherent impatience with the project not meeting the time goals. Therefore, impatience is highly valued trait in leadership. Now, the time aspect is not imagined – it’s very real. Whether I am working with people, machines or markets, there are such a things as “late”, “very late” and “too late”. That said, the virtue of “early”, “under budget” or even “on time” is often overblown. It is the folly of quick-fix leaders to blow that trumpet only and never consider – or be called to account – for the long-term effects of what they have produced. It’s a ploy, and one that sacrifices value for appearance. So, a balance needs to be struck here and doing a job right needs to be tempered by doing it quickly.
This is not a call for sloth or unionized slowdowns or overarching process. And sometimes quick-fix is the way to go; it’s important to be real about that.
But the time to oppose and suggest alternatives to a quick-fix approach is earlier than later. Citing the past and asking hard questions.
It’s a good fight to have.