Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

I was meeting with a potential client recently to discuss how I might help them with their data management strategy. During the discussions, the person I was meeting with made a comment along these lines: “We’ve been working hard on these issues. There’s always a lot of work being done”.

My response was “Yes, but is it the right kind of work? Just because you’re in motion does not mean you’re doing the right things.”

He replied: “Doing something is better than doing nothing.”

Not true. Sometimes its better to just stand there, and NOT do anything. (In reality, it’s better to redirect the resources.)

This reminds me of the healthcare debate going on in the US right now. Many proponents of the current healthcare proposals before Congress have argued that This is better than nothing; we must do something! But if what you’re proposing is actually going to cause more harm than good, is it really best that we just do something? For example, if the current healthcare proposals expand coverage but actually cause insurance rates to rise and lowers the quality of care, is that a good thing?

As I’ve written in other places, every decision we make in life is a trade off. So when we do something we’re making a trade for something else. Usually the trade is that we’re putting people and resources to work on something in place of something else. So if doing something is better than doing nothing, what we’re really saying is doing this is better than doing that.

So how do we know when we should just stand there, and not do anything? It’s a matter of objectives and measures. That is, you have to have clear objectives (i.e., what are you trying to accomplish?) and clear measures for knowing whether or not you have accomplished what you set out to do. In the case above, the objectives were unclear, there were no real measures of success, and thus doing anything probably was not time spent wisely. In their case, just standing there is probably better than doing something.

So the next time you think “We have to do something!” make sure you’ve got clear objectives and measures before you put yourself and others to work. Sometimes it’s better just to stand there.


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