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Sep 24, 2017

The art of ignoration

Yes, it is an actual word. I ignore problems all day, every day. I did not learn it overnight. In mid-90s, Ivan Bobrovnikov, my friend and my boss at the time, gave me one of the lessons. Computers were very glitchy back then, and I would come to him for help. He said about one of them: how much does it bother you? Can you live with it? You can wait until the next MS pack comes in (count yourself lucky if you don’t know what that is), or until your computer dies. He was not brushing me off; he knew that time spent on fixing the little annoying problem will take away from my main work, keep me away from moving the business forward. IN the end, it is the skill of prioritization.

If you listened to Car Talk, you may have noticed, the Tappet Brothers sometimes say – go and fix this immediately, or you will die. However, sometimes they would say – just turn your radio up (or put a piece of the black tape over the warning light) and ignore it. The art is in distinguishing between the two, and I am still learning it.

Some problems I ignore because I do not know of any solution, or a solution in prohibitively expensive/ impractical. Other problems I ignore, because they are just too small, and will not make or break our success, or because they can be put off without much damage. Still others I ignore because someone else should worry about them. However, sometimes a problem may look small, but ever-widening circles of frustration and errors emanate from them. They are like splinters in the body of an organization; left untreated, they will fester and cause infection. So you have drill all the way down, to the street level to understand and address it. These choices are not always sound, but hey, it is art, and not science.

Some people develop excessive attention to processes, while forgetting the purpose. In worst case scenarios, it amounts to obstructionism: they will insist incessantly that all I’s are to be dotted and all t’s to be crossed, to the immediate effect that no business is concluded. For example, any kind of a written policy will always have bugs in it. That is just the nature of any regulation: it may never foresee all instances of application, and therefore is almost guaranteed to have unforeseen consequences. The true choice is between endlessly debating a policy and having none in the meanwhile, and adopting something imperfect, and then revising it on a regular basis. Here is an interesting example how the Finland’s government is developing a very consequential policy through a series of experiments, using the design thinking. Express-Test-Cycle.

As an aside, when I lived in Russia, I have seen an inordinate number of badly designed laws and regulations. It is not because Russians are inept; no, the lack of political mechanisms for looping feedback leads to bad regulations being frozen in time. People learn to work around regulations, because they do not believe in their ability to change them. Some institutions (like my former university, HSE) developed working feedback loops, and are doing much, much better. The Federal Government, on the other hand, is some of the worst. In part, this is because they have large businesses lobby, but none of the professional groups’ lobby.

Back to the art of ignoration: we all have to learn phrases “I can live with that,” and “good enough for now.” It does not mean giving up on continuous improvement, or lowering our expectations. Not at all; this is all about prioritization, about moving forward instead of spinning wheels, about valuing goals over processes. As my late mentor Lyudmila Novikova used to say: “Only cemeteries are perfectly orderly.”

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