bad habits, good habits, accidental evil, determined growth, drupal, meteor

How to Transform "Bad Habits" into Behaviors That Help Combat Accidental Evil

Are you familiar with the concept of Accidental Evil? Perhaps you’ve seen one of the blogs we’ve posted on the topic. Here’s a quick primer:

Essentially, Accidental Evil occurs when one team member takes an action that doesn’t take other important variables into account — and leads to a bad outcome. This idea originates from Casey Cobb, a partner in our digital agency.

If we agree that Accidental Evil is a Very Bad Thing, then why does it happen so often? Smart people tend to learn from their mistakes, don’t they? No one ever tries the dry-your-cellphone-in-a-microwave trick more than once, right? But could the solution to Accidental Evil be as simple as performing deliberate good?

That might be a tempting bon mot, but it probably doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. Most people who’ve committed Accidental Evil would insist they were attempting to “do good.” Trouble is, noble intentions don’t always produce positive results. If you aren’t aligned with your organization’s vision and values, you may be oblivious to the harm your everyday work style causes for others.

Truth is, most of us don’t sabotage communication or efficiency in professional settings on purpose. We simply become focused on our own work and objectives (good things). We act in ways we believe will help us meet our individual goals (more good things) without considering that these behaviors may create problems for others (not so good).

So then, if the Accidental Evil we perpetuate results from long-standing habits, how could the solution be as simple as “do good?”

Maybe the real antidote to Accidental Evil has no perfect recipe. It can be subtle, challenging, and even risky. In order to effectively prevent Accidental Evil, we need to recognize what’s gone wrong in the past and apply those lessons as we move forward. For one thing – and this can be difficult – we have to be flexible with personal preferences. Tougher still, we need to know the difference between personal preference and an actual problem: Is this a big deal, or is it just my pet peeve?

Perhaps a more practical fix for Accidental Evil might be described as determined growth.

Identify Habits that Might Be Improved

On the upside, there’s a fair amount of guidance out there to help you grow. If changing behavior requires us to cultivate new habits, there’s a lot of great advice at our fingertips.

Have you ever tried to temper a perceived bad habit or behavior? You might find that it’s easier to add a habit than to remove one. That is, it’s easier to do something positive than to not do something negative. Consider these:

Bad Habit Solution
Saying “Um” too frequently Don’t say “um!”
Speaking over others in conversation Don’t speak until everyone else has finished.

Are these solutions viable? If your "teenage self" were given these instructions, how would he or she respond? If the fix feels negative or arbitrary, how likely are you to improve?

What if you focused more on why the habit is “bad?”

Bad Habit Why should I care? Positive Change
Saying “Um” too frequently Makes me sound unprepared or unintelligent If I choose my words more carefully, I’ll sound more professional.
Speaking over others in conversation When I don’t acknowledge value in others’ views, it discourages them from contributing. If I demonstrate that I have heard and understood what others say, they’ll be more likely to appreciate my point of view.

In these scenarios, we don’t want to simply refrain from doing something. We want to make ourselves better.

How do we then determine which positive changes we need to make? Or, which to make first?

Avoid Redline Burnout

In agency work, Accidental Evil frequently manifests itself as a ticking deadline, dropped onto someone’s plate without much warning. Teams are often able to rally in order to hit an aggressive deadline or fix latent bugs. But after a few weeks or months of this style of work, everyone probably feels drained and uninspired. Few will have spare cycles for creative thought. These folks find themselves just reacting to an endless stream of urgent tasks.

When the dust settles, often we find that no one did anything wrong per se, but the fire drill could easily have been avoided.

In his perennially popular, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey addresses the essence of this problem. Here, I’ll summarize two of his “Habits” that can be quite effective in preventing Accidental Evil.

Habit to Develop: Communicate Proactively

For many of us, this translates to “over-communication.”

If information is coming at you through multiple channels and at a rapid rate, it’s unlikely that all of the project’s stakeholders are on the same page. If a project manager has trouble keeping up with it all, is it reasonable to assume that the right folks will have the info they need? If stakeholders have to ask for updates or re-work items because something was missed, communication might have broken down. So, how can you fix it — and keep it from breaking again?

  1. Set up a periodic scrum.
    Maybe it’s daily, or maybe you only need to do it once a week. The point is to keep everyone in the loop about recent changes and the project’s status.
  2. Manage expectations.
    Let stakeholders know what to expect and when to expect it. Anxiety breeds in the absence of information. Most client anxiety can be alleviated by simply letting them know.
  3. Send project digests.
    If the flow of information resembles water from a firehose rather than a faucet, things are more likely to slip through the cracks. Keep a running list of categorized updates (e.g., financial updates, schedule changes, team responsibilities, etc), and make it available to everyone involved in the project, each week.

Once you have information flowing smoothly, it’s vital to create and preserve a balanced approach to urgency. Any “Chicken Little” can act as a thermometer; all they have to do is run around telling everyone what’s wrong. The responsibility of leaders is to absorb the heat and convert it to useful action. If everything is urgent, essentially nothing is urgent.

Habit to Develop: Keep the Goal in Mind

Think back to a stormy project where your team had to hunker down to deliver something on time. Everyone has more to do than they can possibly get done, and your client calls with an urgent request to get some new thing done. Maybe there’s no way to avoid the interruption. But before you take a team member off task to work on it, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Would interrupting the team now cause us to miss an existing deadline?
  • Will this fire drill move us closer to the goal than the thing we’re doing now? If not, why is the client pushing it? Is there another issue under the surface? Many a molehill has gained epic height simply because no one stopped to question its priority.
  • Is the client aware of the impact that this diversion could have on important project milestones? Is anyone thinking of the big picture? If not, it’s crucial to lay out the facts for your client so that he or she can make the best decision.

Understand your project’s goal, and emphasize that when presented with potential distractions.

Share the Vision

Sometime in the future, the work that you and your team are doing now will have a payoff. What is it? How will it help? Who will it help? It can be difficult to focus on a goal when no one ever tells you how your contribution will make a difference. It’s easier for team members to commit to tasks when there’s a clear expectation that you’ll eventually get the right result.

Communicating anything requires understanding. In the formative stage, ask your client lots of questions so that everyone on the team can hear the answers. Document what needs to be done, and why it needs doing. Knowing the "what" and the "why" will empower everyone on the team to contribute to the project’s success.

At Project Ricochet, for example, we strive to apply Pareto’s Principle wherever possible. The idea is that 80% of a task’s value is derived from the first 20% of the work put into it. When a developer is assigned a task, he or she has a choice:

  1. Do exactly what the task’s acceptance criteria demand — no questions asked.
  2. Determine how this task fits into the project’s overall vision, and create an approach that better satisfies that vision.

Option two is obviously better. But what’s the motivation to go that extra mile if you don’t even understand how your hard work will help? Habitually communicating each project’s vision will help your team to stay engaged and do better work.

Understand There Is No Panacea

Don’t let the hard work ahead discourage you. When you confront your organization’s challenges with an intentional and determined effort to improve your process, you will see the payoff sooner than later.