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Paint by Numbers

I often ponder the source of the problems we have in modern society and I spend a certain amount of time discussing the issues with friends and colleagues as well. My colleague Fred (not his real name) who works in a similar job to mine (computer support in a large organisation) is one of my best sources of inspiration and I think we have developed a credible hypothesis to explain many of the problems we face.

The problem gets back to how many senior people in organisations tend to use a “paint by numbers” approach. The metaphor is appropriate because people who have no skills and talent and who want to create “art” might do a paint by numbers picture (one where the paint is applied inside an outline using a colour specified by a number on the paper) and anyone with a similar lack of skills who wants to manage an organisation or project might do the same thing by following a list of rules and conventions.

But just like the paint by numbers picture isn’t really art, the result of similar ideas to the workplace isn’t really management either, it’s just a lazy, cowardly excuse for real leadership.

And this is what Fred claims to have found: a ridiculous application of “best practice” and “industry standard” techniques which rarely, if ever, produce a good outcome and certainly totally eliminate any possibility of getting a truly innovative or excellent result.

He wonders why the people engaged in these activities are paid so much when they don’t do anything requiring intelligence, knowledge, or skill. Would we pay someone a lot to paint a picture by numbers?

He thinks it’s partly related to avoidance of risk. That is fair at one level because avoiding risk can be a good thing, but not when it totally precludes any possibility of genuine progress. And the motivation for risk aversion is also interesting: it seems to be more about avoidance of the possibility of personal blame for any problems. After all, if a person follows all the guidelines, industry standards, rules, regulations, and best practice, and things still go wrong (as they usually do) they can hardly be blamed, can they?

But it’s also related to the personal inadequacies of the people making the decisions (according to Fred). They genuinely seem to be totally lacking in intelligence, imagination, and skill. So it’s like the artist with no artistic ability. They can’t really paint but they can still paint by numbers, and as long as the lines are carefully followed and the numbers interpreted properly they think they have succeeded. The fact that they have just created something which is just a copy of what everyone else is doing and may not even be relevant in the exact environment it is being used in makes no difference at all.

A classic example (from my experience rather than Fred’s) might be tech company helpdesks. They all seem to be the same: not very good. Ask anyone what some of their most frustrating experiences are and there’s a good chance a helpdesk of a company like Telecom, or Hewlett Packard, or just about any other tech leader, will come to mind.

It’s not that every helpdesk is bad and that they don’t sometimes get good results, but usually they are annoying, inefficient, and counter-productive for all concerned.

So why are they so common? Well there might be several reasons. First, they make a certain amount of superficial sense. Second, they are cheap, especially if they are run from a low wage economy like India. But mainly it’s because (as I have been saying in this post) they are standard, they are just the way everyone else does support so why actually do anything different?

As a consumer of technical products and services (especially computer, telecommunications and internet) from many companies I would be very happy to pay a bit more for decent service, but I can’t because there is literally no one out there who does it, they have all reverted to the very poor standard which is the norm.

It’s all about paint by numbers and the end picture isn’t very good!

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