The absence of something bad can be just as valuable to your company as the presence of something good. The trick is, it’s hard to appreciate the absence of something. Not only is it difficult to remember or motivate yourself to pay attention to the practices or policies that create the absence of a bad experience, it’s even more difficult to inspire and motivate others to appreciate this absence, and to act accordingly.
Once I started looking, I found many examples of how Atomic Object and our clients benefit regularly from the absence of a bad event. For example:
- The bug that our customer’s users don’t experience.
- The user you didn’t lose last week because of a poorly designed interaction.
- The customer relationship that didn’t get difficult because of the project leader’s years of experience.
- The stress you aren’t currently experiencing because someone helped out by taking a project off your plate.
- The high employee turnover you don’t experience because you treat people respectfully.
What’s common in all these cases is that the absence of an event or experience isn’t likely to be noticed and appreciated. In the fight for your attention, these “missing” bad events can’t compete with events that do happen, either positive or negative. For example, when was the last time you got a call from a customer saying, “hey, just wanted to mention how great it was that the app didn’t crash yesterday,” or you heard from a current employee, “I’m not looking for another job because I trust you.”
It pays to recognize the absence of bad events so you can nurture and promote the underlying activities that cause their absence. Here are some activities that might contribute to the lack of bad events above:
- Writing automated tests takes time; one advantage for doing so is the absence of bugs in production.
- Validation of an application’s design improves a user’s experience with an app, but requires specialized skills and time.
- Employing senior people may seem expensive compared to juniors, until you remember what their experience may help avoid.
- Knowing when you have too much on your plate, and asking a colleague to help, requires discipline, self-knowledge, and a certain level of staff redundancy.
- Maintaining good benefits and investing in your employees takes time and costs money, but it also contributes to their productivity and loyalty.
The risk of the invisibility of bad events or experiences that never happen is that you come to take for granted the policies, culture, practices and effort required to maintain the value you gain from their absence.
What’s the role of the company leader in maintaining the value that comes from bad things that don’t happen? I think it’s two-fold. First, be aware, raise attention, look for opportunities to celebrate the absence of negative events. Second, enlist the help of other senior people in the company to renew commitments and maintain the practices underlying the hidden goodness. As the leader of a company, you have finite time, energy, money and political capital to spend. You need to be sure to allocate some of these resources to maintain the status quo that causes the lack of bad events. It’s easy, when you don’t notice their absence, or when the policies or practices that cause their absence are expensive or difficult, to shift your resources somewhere else.
What you do well may suffer when you collectively lose that focus. The people responsible for the good work may lose their appreciation for and memory of why you do things in a particular way. As you grow, particularly if you hire junior people, it becomes even easier to under-appreciate the causal link between the way things are done and the positive outcome of bad events that don’t happen. After all, if you’ve never experienced the bad event, it’s less likely you’ll appreciate the activities that created their absence. As a leader you need to promote the activities that provide value as a result of bad things that never happen, and you almost certainly need to enlist help in remembering, honoring, maintaining, and passing down the importance of these activities.
- Atomic Ownership, Part 3: Valuation - January 2, 2019
- Atomic’s purpose: to be a company where work matters - November 5, 2018
- Elevating & distributing “glue work” flows out of our core principles - October 18, 2018
- Atomic Ownership, Part 2: How the Atomic Plan & our ESPP work - July 16, 2018
- Atomic Ownership, Part 1: Context, motivations, and accomplishments to date - May 17, 2018