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Don’t put down to malevolence what can be explained by incompetence 

🧐 Don’t Put Down to Malevolence What Can Be Explained by Incompetence 

A Familiar Adage in a New Light 🌟  

Diving into the intricate dynamics of organisations, this post unravels a classic saying that urges us to look beyond the surface. One of my favourite sayings, encountered across a myriad of conversations, rings particularly true for professionals navigating the labyrinth of organisational culture: “Don’t put down to malevolence what you can put down to incompetence”.  

While many attribute negative outcomes to wilful obstruction, I argue that these outcomes often stem from misaligned incentives and systemic flaws. 

Unmasking the Real Culprit: Incompetence, Not Malevolence 😇  

In this section, we debunk the myth of intentional obstruction, revealing the true cause: incompetence. Often, as agile coaches, scrum masters, or developers, we find that actions or decisions by others impede our work.  

Yet, these actions are not necessarily borne out of malicious intent but rather a result of ineffective systems or measures in place. 

Decoding Misalignment: Understanding The System 🧩  

Let’s explore how systemic flaws can lead to negative outcomes, even when no malice is intended. 

  • Lines of Code Fallacy 📊: For instance, measuring developers by the number of lines of code they write often leads to inefficient practices. 
  • Culture as a Shadow 👥: The culture of an organisation is often a mere reflection of its systemic measures. 
  • Inappropriate Metrics ⚖️: When measures fail to align with organisational goals, incompetence results. 

The Systemic Problem: Changing Measures, Not People 🔄  

We turn our attention to how changing systemic measures rather than people, can cast a new shadow. Contrary to common belief, the culture isn’t the real problem; it’s the shadow cast by systemic measures. Efforts to change culture should be redirected towards altering systems and metrics. 

How-To Advice: Aligning Measures for Success 🛠️  

In this part, we’ll delve into practical advice on aligning measures to ensure success and productivity. 

  • Change the System 🔄: Rather than focusing on changing people, shift the systemic measures to cast a different shadow. 
  • Aim for Downhill Battles 🏔️➡️🌄: Ensure that the systemic setup encourages smooth progression rather than creating obstacles. 
  • Adjusting Metrics 📈: For instance, instead of quantifying lines of code, measure productivity or contribution to project goals. 

Misinterpreting Resistance: Perceived Malevolence 🚧  

Here, we examine how resistance can often be misinterpreted as malevolence due to systemic flaws. 

  • Change Requests Dilemma 📑: Traditional project mindsets, like change request procedures, often hinder agility and are seen as resistance. 
  • Compliance as a Saboteur ⚔️: At times, processes like compliance checks may seem like sabotage but are often just a result of systemic inertia. 

Revelation: It’s the System, Not the People 🌅  

This section brings a revelation to light, highlighting that the system is often the root cause, not the people. The uphill battles and perceived resistance are manifestations of systemic incompetence rather than individual malevolence. 

Examples: Adjusting The Sails ⛵  

Let’s look at some examples that illuminate how changing systemic measures can lead to better outcomes. 

  • Change Requests Revisited 🔄: By simplifying change requests, organisations can be more agile and responsive to change. 
  • Encouraging Flexibility 💪: Aligning measures with flexibility and responsiveness can shift the perception from malevolence to productive collaboration. 

Recommendations: Shifting the Paradigm 🔄 In this concluding section, we’ll offer recommendations on how to shift the paradigm for a more productive work environment. 

  • Work on Systems 🛠️: Focus on tweaking systems to encourage desired behaviours. 
  • Re-evaluate Measures 🔍: Regularly assess and adjust performance metrics to align with strategic goals. 

A Shift in Perspective 🌈  

In conclusion, we reflect on the need to alter our perspectives for a collaborative and innovative work environment. Perceived malevolence is often merely a reflection of systemic incompetence. By recalibrating our focus from individuals to systems, we can foster a more productive and collaborative environment. It’s about altering the systemic measures to cast a different shadow—one that fosters growth and innovation. 


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