THE BLOG

Always Ask 'Why?' (Stop Working Badly)

19/09/2013 12:02 BST | Updated 16/11/2013 10:12 GMT

In a design workshop yesterday, I suddenly realised I wasn't trying. I wasn't contributing to the process by suggesting solutions, I wasn't listening. As soon as this struck me, I leaned forward, started thinking and got involved. Afterwards I felt very happy and left the meeting feeling lighter and much more positive about life. I also felt determined not to let that happen again!

Why did this happen? I had become jaded by the ineffective way I had been working and the pleasure had gone. It is terrifying that it is that easy not to think, not to question, not to innovate. And not to realise you are stuck there, but to stop delivering and stop enjoying good work. I wonder how many people are stuck and don't realise they don't want to be. They look like I did yesterday - bored, cynical, and reluctant to listen.

So this is the point of this post - that we must stop this happening to us. We must stop working badly.

A bit of background: I'm an engineering consultant in the construction industry. This is a very old industry with many entrenched processes, often invented for purposes that no longer exist. I want to make both our designs and our working practice more efficient. I love efficiency. In fact, at the moment I am so enamoured by it that spotting inefficiency can me make annoyed to the point of intolerance

My love of efficiency has become stronger recently due to a broadened awareness of its benefits. In pure engineering design terms, efficiency is about the most effective use of resources, or value for money. But when you think about how better person productivity should mean we have to work less and can do more, the benefits to people could be so much more profound. My hypothesis is that if we did less wasted work, we would take more pleasure in what we did and we would innovate more.

We tend to rework things a lot in the construction industry. This is often because we do things in the wrong order. We start designing solutions before we know the question, and this work becomes abortive when the question changes. We frequently don't ask ourselves a critical question that demonstrates there is no problem to solve at all. I feel we are often driven more by what are expected to do that what makes absolute sense. As a result we work too much on the wrong things for the wrong reasons because we do things at the wrong times. We need to be more enthusiastic about changing this! Even if change is counter-intuitive.

So I urge everyone to always ask 'Why?' before carrying out a task, even if you are just whispering it to yourself inside. You should be able to come up with a reason before you do something!

If someone produces an incomplete or inappropriate brief as a basis for design, we should not just blindly use it, but question it and help to develop it. Before we work with it. If we are exploring 20 design options consecutively by email, we need to have a workshop before we get bored. If we are expected to abortively work with unfinished information to meet an interim deadline, why not move the interim deadline? In the long term it's more efficient.

People may disagree with such radical action because they think relationships are built by sticking to well worn processes. Strong relationships are vitally important to successful business but we should ask ourselves how best to build them. Doing what is expected provides a short term positive exchange (a house on the sand). Being brutally honest about the dysfunction of a process should provide the basis for long term collaboration. Asking 'Why am I doing this?' is the first step to better efficiency and having a wider view of relationship building is part of this.

Perhaps we can learn by comparing ourselves to newer industries with much better process management. What if we applied methods like Kanban to our old industry? Its values are in line with what I am after. I'm going to try it in our engineering design team. Clearly to be really successful it would have to involve the various other components of the team including the architects, cost consultants and the client. But that is a different scale of challenge!

We must stop working badly. Because working badly is still working but there is no pleasure in it. I want us only to do work when it makes sense, in the hope that we don't get jaded, we stay happy, nimble and innovative, and we are more productive! I want us to question 'why?' before we 'do' so that we can work more efficiently, build better relationships and lead more fulfilling lives. It may be naive, but it seems like this efficiency should be self-perpetuating.