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June 20, 2007 Volume 7, Issue 25
 
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More Stuff and Nonsense

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Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture. These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help. Here are some examples.
The Declaration of Independence

A portion of the painting, "The Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull. If ever there was an opportunity for too many cooks to spoil the broth, the crafting of the US Declaration of Independence was certainly one of them. In fact, a committee had been formed to write it, but after some attempts, eventually the job went to Thomas Jefferson, who had arranged to get it. Read Jefferson's own account of how he came to write the Declaration. View an interactive version of the painting to identify the people in it. The scene in the painting never actually happened, but it does appear on the back of the US two-dollar bill. In the painting, Jefferson is standing, the tallest man in the center in front of the table. John Adams, our leftmost of that group, is standing on Jefferson's foot. On the two-dollar bill, he isn't. The man behind Jefferson and to his right is Robert Livingston, who, as Jefferson's minister to France, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. Painting photographed by Theodor Horydczak, ca. 1920-1950. Photo courtesy US Library of Congress.

An aphorism is a concise statement widely believed to be valid, and often quoted. Aphorisms are a little more credible than adages, probably less widely quoted, and usually less clever. But the two are only subtly different, and one person's adage might well be another's aphorism.

Aphorism or adage, though, they're probably all wrong if you think carefully enough. Here are a few examples that cause mischief at work.

There's an exception to every rule
Let's assume this one is true. Then, since the statement itself is a rule, an exception must exist, and therefore there exists a rule that has no exceptions. Since that contradicts the original rule, the statement must be false.
What goes around comes around
The idea here is that there is absolute justice in the world — that if you do right (wrong), then right (wrong) will eventually come back to you. This is simply wishful thinking. The world is way more random than that, and bad guys often go unpunished. There is some justice, but it's imperfect.
Too many cooks spoil the broth
This one is the basis of a belief that beyond a certain maximum number of "decision-makers," failure is inevitable. Even allowing that the maximum number might be task-dependent, this belief is often used to exclude the powerless from decisions. That's tragic, because in the real world, from science to banking to politics, people outside the dominant group are often the greatest innovators.
Many hands make light work
Maybe this is true when we're haying or cleaning dairy barns or picking apples, but it probably isn't true when we're writing software or designing a political campaign or performing brain surgery. Knowledge work is different.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
Aphorism or adage — they're
probably all wrong if you
think carefully enough
The problem here is the definition of "broke." In the modern workplace, most products, processes, and policies do function well, and most also have defects. The acceptability of their performance is subjective. The question is whether the likely benefits of improvement are worth the risk.
You can't teach an old dog new tricks
We use this belief to justify exclusion or termination of older, more experienced employees — if we want to. But when we're looking for a high-value executive or key contributor, we insist on hiring only the most experienced people who have done something similar before. You can't have it both ways.
Never trouble trouble 'til trouble troubles you
This piece of advice is a cousin of "Ain't Broke," but it's more specific. It allows that some things are broken, but if they don't harm you directly, it's best to let them go. In this modern, tightly networked world, waiting for trouble to trouble you directly could be a losing strategy.

Perhaps a true aphorism exists, and I just haven't run into it yet. I never say never. Go to top Top  Next issue: Dealing with Negative Progress  Next Issue
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For more about the painting, Declaration of Independence, see the article by David McCullough, "An Icon's Secret: How John Trumbull's revered depiction of July 4, 1776, mixes fiction and fact." In The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2007; Page P1.


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