The man with good intentions

2019-12-18

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is how to evaluate a solution to a problem as a “Good Intentions” solution.

This is a Jeff Bezos insight. Here’s how it works: when something has gone wrong, assume everyone involved meant well unless there’s evidence to the contrary. That means that anything which going to solve the problem is not allowed to rely on the good intentions of a human being.

A solution which boils down to “Brian should try harder to do the right thing” helps nobody. Brian was already trying to do the right thing. He didn’t get it wrong on purpose. He’s not a bad person, and he’s not bad at his job. People forget things. People have bad days and make mistakes. It happens all the time. Any system which doesn’t have a plan for this ironclad truth of the human condition is guaranteed to break down at some point. And when it does, you’ll be back where you started.

Actual solutions to problems make it easier for a person to do the right thing, or harder for them to do the wrong thing. They do not rely on intentions, they rely on systems.

Once you internalize the truth of this idea you start to realize how many people totally dodge problem solving by appealing to good intentions. It’s wild.

I once had a meeting with my manager (at the time). I’d screwed up and he was gently telling me I’d dropped the ball and needed to be more careful in the future. That was good feedback and I’m glad he raised it with me, because I hadn’t realized I’d done anything wrong.

“Is this process written down somewhere?” I asked. It was not.

“Maybe we can make a checklist, so that when this happens again it will be obvious what to do.”

He frowned. We don’t need a checklist, he explained. The process is very simple. I just had to make sure that next time it happened, I did all of the steps.

That manager went on to have that exact meeting at least once with everyone on his team for the rest of his career.