The origin of this statement for me goes back nearly 20 years ago when I attended a technical leadership training event whilst I was working at Hewlett-Packard. At the time I remember thinking that I learned more worthwhile lessons in a week of that course than in entire subjects at university. The title of this post is one of the key lessons that I took away and am still using today.

So, a little explanation is in order as the statement sounds a bit crazy taken out of context. During this training session, we were taken through a series of simulations – with a explanation and discussion of relevant points after each simulation.

The simulation behind this statement was a simple problem solving situation. The idea was that there was multiple rounds and each round there was a “minimum” score that you had to get (I think it was around 20 points). After each round, you presented your solution to the facilitator who would then calculate your score based on the answer you gave. Highest scoring team wins. There was a fairly simple and repeatable way to get 25 points which was over the minimum – it didn’t take a lot of brainpower to figure out. Now, you could try different combinations and there is a distinct possibility that you could fail and get zero points.

Different teams tried different strategies and I remember our team after getting the simple answer started to get bored. So, we decided to experiment. We failed a few times, but it gave us insight to try new things. After a few rounds our scored had dramatically increased (I can’t remember exactly how much, but I think it was in the order of 100-200 points). Within a couple of rounds we had made up any lost scores of the experimentation and we were the winning team.

During the debrief I remember the facilitator saying that he’s seen all sorts of permutations for this exercise. One that he remembers most was a sales team who repeatedly answered with the basic scenario getting 25 points a round. He said at the end he asked them why they did that, to which they replied “We made quota”. This in contrast to our teams approach was very different – we got bored as there was no growth / interest in maintaining the status quo so we experimented.

During our debrief the facilitator was going through how to solve problems – in particular with people working in technical domains. Obviously, when one of our experiments failed, we would try something else. It makes me think of the quote / cliche “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different results” (to which I would add, unless, as cynefin has shown me, you’re in the complex domain and you may well get different results). Anyway, continually repeating a failing practice tends not to be a good idea. Which brought us to the first part of his statement “If something’s not working do something different”.

The next part, relates to how we felt during the simulation. We figured out the basics and were getting bored. This is often the case with technical teams, and I’d also say knowledge workers more generally. They like to solve problems – a solved problem repeated over and over will not keep their interest for long. It also means that you plateau in terms of capability. You need to look for new ways of doing things, for example the evolution of land transport from horse to railroad to car. There’s a ceiling to breeding horses, they can only go as fast as their able – but different means may allow something superior to emerge. Getting around on horse is still viable for basic transport, but we may want something better. This relates to the second part of the statement – “If something is working, do something different”.

Therein lies one of the key lessons I’ve learned in my professional career: “If something’s not working, do something different. If something is working, do something different”.