Passive Intervention

In my first full-time job whilst studying architecture at University, I learnt a valuable lesson. I was the office gopher, responsible for ‘general office duties’ (or GOD) as I liked to describe myself. In between doing some project work, I’d maintain the library, put morning tea on, and take care of the office reprographics. At first, all our drawings were manually drafted and copied via a dyeline machine, and later, we used inkjet plotters.

Late on Friday afternoons, I’d get that dreaded request from a firm director to get some drawings out. In practice, this meant an argument between me and the plotter. I’d get frustrated but would get it working somehow, despite it taking longer than I thought fair.

I would ask the directors about getting the equipment upgraded, but with no success. Each time it would fail, I’d fix it, get the job done somehow.  But that was not the success in this story. My failure to be heard was in my persistence at fixing the problem.

Only a few weeks after leaving to return to my studies, and having helped a fellow student take my place in his year out, I found out that the reprographics equipment had had a major update. How did this happen?  I’d been asking all this time and now that I leave, they go and upgrade!

In my fixing of the plotter each time, the ‘problem’ as they saw it wasn’t there any more. Once I left, the problem became much more apparent. If I’d stopped intervening earlier, perhaps the update of the equipment would have happened earlier.

The lesson I took from that was that in contrast to our learned behaviour and best intentions, sometimes it’s possible to achieve something by doing nothing, and allowing a problem to get worse in order for it to get better.

The first step toward change is a sense of urgency, and so long as there doesn’t appear to be a problem, there is nothing that needs changing. I’m not advocating contrarian behaviour; just reframing the old adage: the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

What can you change today about your approach to a persisting problem that might generate a different outcome? Can you raise the sense of urgency about something – for a constructive purpose? And what can you do with it once you’ve achieved that?

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