If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Throughout my career, I have seen too many colleagues live by the cliché, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They cling to this operational ethos convinced the status quo is the safest place to be, nestled in the security of sameness. From the halls of Washington to corporate America to academia, we seem to be pervaded by an essence of intransigence as progress stalls.

I learned to reject this idea when I worked at Intel in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and was introduced to the concept of “better, faster, cheaper”: creating products with more attributes and higher performance at lower costs. Intel was in the business of cannibalizing its own products. The Intel Inside® program was designed to shift the market to new product lines that improved past performance. PC makers received co-marketing funds from Intel when they began promoting the new product lines and phasing out existing ones.  My job was to troubleshoot on behalf of the man who would become the next CEO: evaluating key programs, aligning resources, establishing processes and streamlining efforts to achieve higher-level results.

I realized I had developed a reputation for change when I walked into a job interview a number of years ago and the first thing I heard from the search committee was “We don’t need fixing.” But what about innovating? Improving results? Streamlining processes? Reaching new heights?

At the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, the “better” aspect of the Intel philosophy persists. Each year, each member of the team defines personal objectives, key results, and quantitative goals. Individual objectives roll up into an organizational framework, subject to the approval of our board. Each quarter, the team reviews its progress and tracks it against our goals. Key results are about big numbers, change and driving toward a higher level of competency. Regularly, we get rid of products, projects and materials that aren’t performing well and focus resources on initiatives with the highest potential.

As part of our common mission, the team operates from a place of “How can I help?”  We are a small part of a large-scale industry engagement. As such, the team recognizes we all benefit when those who are able, help those with needs. If someone is able to resolve an issue or address a challenge, they offer. Within HWCF, team members know their performance is gauged by their abilities to meet their own objectives and results, but they also appreciate that success is collective: their success is not entirely distinct from the success of their peers.  Every day, I hear someone walk into a colleague’s office or call a partner and say some truly magic words: “I think I can help you solve this problem” or “I have time. May I offload that for you?”

In 30 years, I have sat in too many meetings in which key concerns have been highlighted and solutions pondered yet no decisions have been rendered to resolve problems which later appear splashed across the front pages of newspapers and websites, entirely avoidable fates.

And so, two bits of advice:

  1. Don’t ignore problems. Address them head on. Problems ignored never go away. They fester and spread. If you are in a board meeting and you see a purple polka-dotted elephant in a pink tutu dancing on the table, repatriate it to a circus. If you see an initiative headed for a cliff, correct course.
  2. Don’t mistake “ain’t broke” for “fine.” Check in with projects and processes on a regular basis. Assess progress. Adjust as needed. “Faster” and “cheaper” may not always be viable or advisable, but “better” is always a sure thing.
Lisa Gable
About the author: 

Lisa Gable served as Vice Chair of the Defense Advisory Committee of the Services, serving as an advisor to the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chief of Staff during the Navy Tailhook sexual harassment scandal.  She recently a Senior Vice President at PepsiCo, responsible for global public policy development.  Ms. Gable has also served as the President at Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, as a Principal with The Brand Group, and at the Ambassador, Advisor and General Commissioner-levels in the United States Department of State and Department of Defense. Lisa has her Master’s Degree from Georgetown University, and she has worked with numerous non-profits and Boards, including her role as a National Trustee for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Follow her on Twitter.