Break It to Fix It

Looking back at the early years of my career, I recognize that I had what could only be classified as a savior complex. I inevitably felt the urge to step in to fix a situation or to work extra hours on a project to “make it work.” At times, projects seemed to be falling apart because others were too slow in completing their portion. Other times, leadership had made a decision without working through what it would take to implement that decision (a mistake I made in leadership as well).

I tried some of the normal “work/life balance” tricks, but there is only so much that time-management techniques can do when the task at hand requires 26 of the available 24 hours in the day. Ultimately, I came to a simple, relatively elegant solution: sometimes you have to break it to fix it.

It may seem a bit harsh to suggest that the best solution sometimes entails actively “breaking” our organizations…and that’s not really what I’m suggesting. Don’t go trying to sabotage your boss or co-workers. What I am suggesting is this: we don’t always have an obligation to keep something that is going to break from breaking. We don’t always have an obligation to:

  • make up for our organization’s resourcing or staffing issues,
  • carry the load for a low performing colleague that no one is keeping accountable,
  • or fill in the gaps in a leader’s strategy.

Instead, our obligation is to:

  • speak our mind about what we feel is in danger of breaking,
  • play the role we have been given in the organization well, and
  • trust that leadership is paying attention and that our organization’s accountability and monitoring structures will drive course corrections if/when things don’t go well.
  • We need to stay engaged, but we don’t have to give our lives over to our organization. Refusing to carry the burdens of poor planning and performance aren’t a part of anyone’s job description.
  • I’ll give a specific example. One of my employees came to me and expressed concern about the number of hours he was working to keep all the projects he was managing moving forward. I was surprised. It was the first time I’d heard that he was working well beyond a 40-hour work week. We talked for some time and, ultimately, I encouraged him to delay several projects until I could staff appropriately to get them done.

    In this scenario, I was the one who had overestimated our operational capacities…I’d miscalculated and created an unworkable strategy. My employee was trying to “make it work” by working extra hours. In trying to keep things together (to keep things from breaking), he wasn’t allowing me the opportunity to actually fix what needed to be fixed…we needed more help to do all I wanted to do (and all my leadership wanted done!) within the timeframe I had set.

    When we seek to sustain our organizations beyond our roles or beyond reasonable degrees of expectation, we do a disservice to our organizations. We aren’t actually helping the organization (at least not long-term) by holding things together, we are allowing our organization to remain in a state of delusion and vulnerability.

    Working within our specified roles and responsibilities isn’t always comfortable. “Breaking it” will often mean having tough conversations with leaders about boundaries, capacities, staffing, prioritization, deadlines, and accountability. But, if we really want to help our organizations, we can’t always take on the responsibility to fill cracks…we have to be willing to let some things fall through those cracks. At times, it’s the only way leadership will know there is a problem or that a specific problem is going to have to be addressed.

    So, the next time you feel the urge to “make it work” consider that sometimes you have to break it to fix it.