When I first read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I felt the author was an absolute genius in describing the scene of the Deep Thought supercomputer spitting the number 42 as The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. But unfortunately, the answer seems meaningless even to the computer creators because the beings that architected the supercomputer never really knew what the actual question was.
As I started composing this newsletter and reading the number 42, I had to write this. Why? Because appealing to my “nerdy” side, I have collected, over time, several moments where I have witnessed organisational processes experimenting with authentic 42 moments.
A result appeared out of a process that nobody expected. And some people started investigating what the question was.
- How often have you seen an Analytics team creating dashboards to discuss how to use the data results? A clear sign that the dashboard is not answering questions.
- How often have you seen a company run a lengthy budgeting process involving all functions, producing a final number that the current situation has already made “outdated”. What is the question the budgeting process is trying to answer?
- How often have you witnessed a recruiting team do its best to find new talent, get out in the market, run interviews, finally get the right person, onboard the person, and just a few weeks later, the HRBP is having a conversation with the Hiring Manager asking why that role was hired for.
- How often have you seen a company launch a transformation process, hire a consultant who develops a lengthy process, landing a Target Operating Model presentation that people wonder what is this for?
- How often have you seen somebody propose a “Best Practice” to be applied to a company, to see the puzzled faces of other managers wondering what precisely the problem you are trying to solve is?
- How often have you heard people talk about “agility” in a business context, just letting you wonder what the issue is here?
The 42 Syndrome
All rhetoric questions, of course. Yet many organisations face issues like these.
I call this The 42 Syndrome. It happens when companies put in place considerable transformation efforts that produce outputs of negligible (if any) value after a long time and where initial value assumptions (usually much higher) tend to be forgotten.
(There’s another expression I learnt in France that has a similar echo: Usine à gaz. This focuses more on the difficulty of understanding the system).
Why does this happen?
- We don’t spend enough time defining the problem we want to solve. Instead, transformations are carried out simply because there’s a best practice somewhere outside. Or because agile is a trendy methodology.
We build business cases that don’t have much relationship with reality, focusing too much on intangible benefits with dubious value. Plus, we don’t put complete monitoring systems during the project.
- We create projects that try to address too many issues at once, trying to find the ultimate solution.
We run projects in silos (an element that is worsened when external providers are involved using waterfall processes), not allowing enough visibility on interim results.
We involve end-users late in the process. For example, often, testers are involved without real visibility on why a system or method was designed that way.
- Ultimately, there’s no actual governance on results measurement.
What’s the answer?
I believe the answer is intentionally defining problems at the early stage of any change process and monitoring that the problem definition doesn’t change as we go along. Only this way, we won’t be surprised by the answer.
Did you also have a 42 moment in your company? I’d love to hear from you.