“If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It” is Broken

Yesterday, like every Thursday was #lrnchat, a weekly public Twitter chat I help moderate that focuses on organizational learning. The topic was on “Tools of the Trade” and the group of 100 (more or less) professionals ran through a number of topical questions related to how we find out about, select and replace tools for learning in our organizations.In a discussion of how we replace tools, a tweet came up:

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
This pattern of thought is fundamentally flawed, in many of the same ways that an Org Chart is flawed. Codifying these things, putting them into review cycles that are predetermined makes a lot of sense if the conditions on which they’re meant to serve remain static. Over time, any solution one implements is going to become too rigid to be useful to the purpose for which it is employed. In other words, assuming that something is “fixed” implies that it is no longer “broke.”

“Fixed” in and of itself is an interesting word, with a lot of loaded connotations. Fixed could mean repaired, it could mean stationary, it can mean focused. All of these words imply at the root that they are static, rigid, not prone to ever change. How many of us are in some kind of work facing the same markets, the same customers, the same market conditions, the same ways of dealing with those customers as five years ago? Three years ago? Heck, even last year?

We’re experiencing major shifts and while the aim of what we do maybe should be our compass (our learning goals, what we want to accomplish, what trail we want to leave behind us), the tools we use to navigate these challenging waters have to at least help us with the tides. A fixed anchor helps us stay centered when waters are calm, but in a rising tide, it probably would keep us submerged.

How many of us are learning, for ourselves, with the same means that we learned five years ago? How many of us are depending more and more on our capacity to network to find relevant, just-in-time information that we need (or want)?

My problem with the notion of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is that it blinds us from real problems, and we keep pushing off the “fixing” of things that are sorely in need of repair because we continually lower the bar (especially in organizational learning — it’s observation, not opinion) of defining what “broke” means. The very phrase puts us in an ideational trap that perpetuates bad situations into becoming worse situations.

The next time someone tells me “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” I think I’m going to ask them to define, in writing, what “broke” means? What’s the criteria that we’re looking for? When is it okay to finally have a functioning organization?

I know there are going to be reactions to this that basically will say, “but Aaron, we can’t just be learning new tools or new ways of doing things all the time?” First of all, we can and we do learn new tools and new ways of doing things all the time, and that’s an awesome thing. People collaborate together, negotiate each others’ knowledge and experiences and toolsets to determine how to work together productively — this happens all the time, even if it’s invisible from the top-down.

I understand that organizationally, there are many good reasons for choosing tools and processes and sticking with them. What I would challenge, and I think it’s a reasonable challenge, is that even while we select a tool or we agree on a process, we should constantly be challenging ourselves and our peers: can we do it better?

We should be fixing things all the time — this is my point. How can we compete, how can we grow, how can we learn if we’re not making ourselves, our spheres of influence, our organizations better CONTINUOUSLY?

Note: This is a cross-post from my personal blog, http://www.aaronsilvers.com/

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Adriel Hampton

Aaron, awesome post (might want to break the hyperlink to the photo, makes it hard to cut and paste great quotes in the text).
I do a lot of database research for my job, and I can see how the “not broke” mentality is really leaving government way behind in terms of best practices. One thing I’m really concerned right now is the huge disconnect in “public information” and “open data.” I’ve been researching pipeline safety and there are HUGE and incredibly rich public data troves regarding safety incidents, complaints and responses, maps and such. But they are in either seperate HTLM files or several chunks of CSV (and other random and strange formats), and the people doing research and reporting from the data are interpreting it widely different ways because it is not in one place or standardized. There is a real cost to this “broken” state of data, as we see Congressional hearings relying on flawed newspaper reports instead of independent research. In the Web 2.0 era, standards are incredibly important and powerful for conveying accurate information and empowering policymakers, the press and public. We’ve come so far, but we’re still so far away.

Aaron E. Silvers

Thanks for the heads up, Adriel. I was wondering why everything was blue.

Even if all the data we have in government could be opened up, there’s a question from a non-techy citizen’s perspective of “what am I supposed to do with this?” Usability and Accessibility are real problems and in the race to be transparent, I worry that we’re missing the point that transparency alone doesn’t solve problems — it’s making that information useful to people in different contexts that becomes really important.

I have some experience with standards. They can be a useful tool; they can also be a barrier precisely because of what I’m blogging about here. The bar to amending or revving standards can be variable, highly contextual, the process politicized…

You’re hitting on a theme that’s definitely striking a chord with me this week, which is we need to involve a very diverse set of stakeholders from outside the organization (or government, in our cases) as we can. We need to understand how people need or want to use our data, and we need to embody that sense of empathy as we roll out open data. Making the data “open” and “available” isn’t enough. It has to be useful in order for it to be used.

Questionable news sources may have all the wrong data or misleading reporting, but they get used because they’re a) more accessible to those stakeholders; and b) to them, they’re more useful and more easily understood.

Adriel Hampton

Here’s the bit I wanted to quote – “we can and we do learn new tools and new ways of doing things all the time, and that’s an awesome thing.” YES!
And I hope more of us will look at the “usefulness” and education components of open data. Developers generally see this, because they can make good use of certain data sets and formats (and back to my point that much of the data is already online, just not with preferred formats or APIs). But there is a cost to transitioning to better data formats and standardization, and if the general public is not behind that it will not happen. And if the general public is not behind it, who is the open data for? Lots of issues to unpack here.

Aaron E. Silvers

“And if the general public is not behind it, who is the open data for? Lots of issues to unpack here.”

I’m with you, brother. We have fractal challenges of empathy. We have huge needs to set new patterns in motion of getting citizens connected, plugged in and constructively engaged and unsatisfied with the status quo. We need to reinforce a common belief in “working together to make things better” and we have absolutely no time to waste in doing so.

Steven Ollek

Well said…would like more info on the weekly chat you referenced in the beginning. Hard to hear this phrase from so many, but I find it even harder to challenge the saying. Thanks for the new comeback!!

Aaron E. Silvers

Steven, thanks for saying that, and happy to make the acquaintance of a ‘Cane (I started at Miami in 1990).

#lrnchat (http://lrnchat.com for past chat transcripts) happens every week on Thursdays on Twitter at 11:30am and again at 8:30pm, Eastern Time. Every week, the moderators share 3-5 questions around a central theme related to learning, education and/or training. These chats have been going strong for about two years now and a solid community continues to grow connecting thought leaders in the space and many, many professionals at every juncture in their careers from around the country and world.

If you’re interested at all in the trends and needs for online learning, it’s a good chat to get a feel for what all kinds of orgs are doing.

Kevin Lanahan

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” usually means “It is not in my current list of job duties, and its importance has not been adequately explained to me.”

Aaron E. Silvers

Kevin, a co-worker and friend of mine (@StephanieDaul) once asked me to think of every instance when someone said to me ‘I don’t have time.’ What they’re really saying is ‘I don’t want to.’ My point being is that there are a whole lot of ways to say no; I personally believe that I need to be more innovative at finding ways to say yes.

Having a list of prescribed job duties, and sticking to it (and only it), is a very Industrial Age concept. I get that there are a lot of people who need that structure; it would suffocate someone like me.

I can totally buy into “its importance has not been adequately explained to me” to a certain extent, because I believe we need to be very explicit (not just transparent) about what we’re doing and *why* we’re doing it.

Kevin Lanahan

Didn’t mean to imply that “it’s not in my job description” is a legitimate defense.

I think of “if it ain’t broke…” as an invitation to help that person see the bigger picture and to see how she can play a part in it.

“It’s not in my job description” is a golden opportunity to expand that person’s idea of what his job is, and how he can make a difference.

I’ve been lucky in my government career to have opportunities to make a difference. But not everyone does. In many agencies, ideas come from the top down, and implementation comes with little explanation or input from the front-line workers. That seems to be changing, and not a moment too soon.


“If Government’s not transparent and corrupt…THAT’S GREAT.
Keep Up The ‘GOOD’ work!”

Many A (Federal/State/Local) Government (entity/agency) Head/Leader