Back in June, we looked at Part II of our collection of over-generalized adages — wacky words of wisdom (see "Wacky Words of Wisdom: II," Point Lookout for June 6, 2012). Here's a third installment.
- Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs
- These words, due to Henry Ford, were probably meant to apply to manufacturing — specifically to assembly line work. They capture a belief widely held, especially in Western societies, that we can accomplish any complex task by decomposing it into smaller, more manageable tasks. But does it apply to tasks of absolutely every kind? Does it apply to medical diagnosis? Designing a flood control system? Formulating economic policy? Writing legislation?
- Division strategies are valid for a class of tasks that we might call divisible. But some tasks might be only partially divisible, or not divisible at all. For example, for some diseases or disease combinations, accurate diagnosis requires a grasp of the totality of a patient's health. When success depends on grasping the whole, or when success depends on grasping portions that seem at first to be unrelated, division doesn't work. What's worse, for indivisible tasks, determining divisibility is often itself an indivisible task. An increasing portion of all modern work just isn't divisible. Dividing indivisible tasks invites disaster.
- If you want something done right, do it yourself
- This adage is often used as a basis for infringing previously delegated responsibility, or for micromanaging, or for obsessive review of delegated work. These behaviors all contribute to nightmarish relationships between supervisors and their subordinates.
- Those who An increasing portion of modern
work just isn't divisible. Dividing
indivisible tasks invites disaster.take this "advice" to heart have most likely misidentified the problem. They believe, incorrectly, that their problem is incompetent or negligent subordinates. More likely, the problem is that their standards are unreasonable; or standards are so fluid that subordinates cannot keep current; or standards have not been effectively communicated; or supervisor/subordinate relations have broken down; or the output quality assessment process is biased, unfair, or inaccurate; or the supervisor is determined to prove that only the supervisor is competent. These are only examples of a host of serious problems. All are extremely difficult to address unassisted.
- If two people can't get along, one or both are to blame
- This widely believed but rarely articulated idea has a partner: "If everyone has difficulty working with X, the problem is in X." Both ideas are sometimes applicable, but only careful investigation can determine applicability. It's safest to keep an open mind about the source of the difficulty, pending investigation.
- Difficulty between any pair of people usually arises from complex interactions involving many others, including the team lead or the supervisor(s). It's rare — though possible — that one person or one pair of individuals is the cause of trouble. More often, everyone plays a part.
For more examples, see "Wacky Words of Wisdom," Point Lookout for July 14, 2010, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: II," Point Lookout for June 6, 2012, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: IV," Point Lookout for August 5, 2015, and "Wacky Words of Wisdom: V," Point Lookout for May 25, 2016.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
- And on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
- In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.
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