Primum Non Nocere

June 27, 2017 by
Filed under: Leadership, Quality 

A colleague of mine recently pointed me to an article about Design Thinking (caps intentional here). The article nicely explained the principles behind Design Thinking, but I felt it went off the rails a bit toward the end, when the author described a ‘recipe’ for Design Thinking.

It’s an implementation approach I’ve seen before, and I’ve groused about it on numerous occasions, both in this blog and speaking at events or workshops. I’ve stepped on a few toes.

I believe that in the race to take great principles to market, there can be a tendency to get caught up in terminology and try to distill these principles down to a particular set of practices (particularly for those with more of a tech background than sales or marketing). With the intent that might be simplifying communication or standardizing deployment, what often happens is that the potential value delivered is diminished, and in some cases can actually create disruption for the client.

There’s a phrase that I’ve used a few times with startups in recent years – First do no harm (or Primum non nocere) – it’s attributed to different sources, but most commonly seen as part of the Hippocratic Oath that medical practitioners are to follow. I think it’s an important message, one that I try to live by: work has to be about the benefits – not only to the intended client, but to all key stakeholders in an intended transaction. When I see that I am not able to deliver value for a client, I’ll broach the idea of disengaging.

There have been times when I’ve simply severed the relationship with a client because of this principle. Less money, better sleep.

So back to that original article, and the tendency to, well, lose sight of the principles-first approach to engagement.

I’ve recently been exploring the opportunity to add another arrow to my quiver, a platform that would support the work I do in ‘traditional’ workshops (face to face or online) by providing the infrastructure to reinforce the learning through managed commitments to changed behaviours, based on some of the latest thinking around adult learning. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but it’s the cleanest mouthful I’ve been able to work out so far.

The platform has me pretty excited. Anyone that’s run workshops knows the frustration of introducing new ideas and energizing the group, only to find that afterwards, not much has really changed. It’s often ‘back to the real world’, the stickiness just isn’t there.

So there’s this potential game-changer, and one particular client that has significant energy around the latest learning approaches, replete with buzzwords and technology and a perceived need to fill some gaps. It all felt like a no-brainer until I brought the idea out to a wider range of stakeholders, where the wheels feel right off that bandwagon. I had overplayed the buzzwords, I had gone all prescriptive, I had raced to deploy something before really understanding how (or whether) it supports or adds value for all the players.

I had indeed done some harm, caught in my own passion to deliver this amazing stuff and losing sight of some of the guiding principles along the way. I gained an accidental empathy for all those practice-centric consultants that I’ve railed against over the years. Humble pie indeed.

I was taking something to market while I was still unconsciously incompetent. I just didn’t know what I didn’t know, if you will. On reflection, I was bungling like Jerry Lewis in one of his old Lewis and Martin movies, and I’m not proud of it (though over the years I’ve learned to appreciate that Jerry Lewis, like him or not, had honed his talent to such a degree that he could put on a bungling idiot façade, and play the part flawlessly).

With this realization, I have taken a step back.

My experience reinforced what I had already known, that a quick absorption of a new idea through some slides or a few chats or a course with a shiny certificate at the end of the day doesn’t make you an expert, doesn’t qualify you to go forth and spread the message and expect that it will change the world. Simply convincing yourself isn’t enough, particular when we’re all encumbered with confirmation bias and swayed by slick marketing and attracted to shiny objects.

What’s worked for me in the past is to recognize where the gaps are and to intentionally develop, over time, a body of knowledge and sensitivity to the nuances of the issues to be sure that what I recommend is still aligned with the underlying principles that are so critical. That’s why I won’t pitch a particular practice or methodology, despite the fact that this approach can be an easy sell to prospects that are indeed looking for a particular practice or methodology, the Oprah-book-club style of consulting. I won’t blindly say “use this tool” or “fill in this template” or “do this stuff daily”, ’cause we’re not automatons.

So, after catching myself doing just that, here I am, recognizing I have a some work to do. I’m diving deeper into the science and principles behind this product offering, stepping back and poking at the fears and frustrations and resistance to my initial forays (and my own spidey-senses), and challenging myself to see whether there is a path where I can truly say that this approach does no harm for any of the stakeholders, and provides value in the areas needed by the client.

And if there’s interest in chatting about this potentially new arrow in my quiver (it’s not a sure thing quite yet), I’d love some company along that journey, to help me make sure I do no harm. – JB


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    Another excellent article – we were just discussing this very subject in a course I recently taught. I forwarded your article to everyone in the class, so you might expect a few more subscribers soon…

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