Break It to Fix It: 3 Steps to Reinvention

May 11, 2021

Break It to Fix It: 3 Steps to Reinvention

As HR professionals, we often rely on our training and experience to establish systems, make decisions and lead our teams. Referencing what worked in the past can guide our success moving forward, the theory goes. Yet this status quo bias can quicky become a trap when we fail to consider fresh approaches.

To me, the maxim “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is cringeworthy. In the category of horrible advice, it’s right up there with “don’t rock the apple cart” and “don’t speak unless you’re spoken to.” I prefer the phrase “Break it to fix it.” It’s a call-to-arms, challenging us to confront products, systems, approaches and processes that are working fine. Instead of waiting for outside forces to render the current state obsolete, it is the proactive approach of getting there first. Why wait to take action until your current system has been displaced?

In the same way that the milk in your fridge has an expiration date, I’ve often wondered why a mandatory refresh date doesn’t exist on most things in the business world. When a new system or process is enacted, why is it assumed that the approach should be everlasting? It simply doesn’t make sense to ascribe permanence in a world that’s changing so rapidly. I wholeheartedly believe that it’s our responsibility to seek new versions, to deconstruct and rebuild, to reimagine and pursue a better way. 

Having spent more than 30 years in the business world, I’ve observed that people tend to overestimate the risk of trying something new while they underestimate the risk of standing still. In fact, this skewed approach to risk has been the downfall of too many once-great organizations, from Pan Am Airlines to Oldsmobile.

In contrast, everyday innovators are constantly examining current conditions, looking for opportunities to break and then create new ones. These upgrades can pay significant dividends when applied to compensation and benefits, talent optimization practices, safety standards, recruiting efforts, training, and nearly every other HR system, big or small. The same method used to drive wide-sweeping diversity and inclusion efforts can apply all the way down to retooling how you run your Monday morning team meeting. Here’s a simple yet highly effective break it to fix it methodology:

Step 1: Deconstruct

The first order of business is to carefully disassemble the current approach into its individual components. If you’re looking at compensation models, it would involve separating base comp, benefits, long-term incentives and perks. If you’re attacking a process such as recruiting, look at each of the mini steps that come together to form the broader approach. Physical or metaphorical, deconstruct your target into the smallest possible fragments in the same way you reduced fractions in seventh-grade math class: until you could subdivide no more.

Step 2: Examine

Now that the components are isolated, it’s time to examine them with the diligence of a fastidious scientific researcher. To that end, I recommend using a playlist. In Dan and Chip Heath’s 2013 book Decisive, they differentiate between a checklist and a playlist. They characterize a checklist as a list of things that must all be done, whereas a playlist is an organized list of possibilities. When I’m working to solve a problem, I run a playlist of questions that helps me fully understand the deconstructed components at the root level:

  1. What is this thing made of? 
  2. What’s missing?
  3. What was the thinking and context that led to its initial creation?
  4. Why did this work in the past?
  5. What’s different today?
  6. How has the customer’s need (internal or external) changed since this was originally conceived?
  7. What are the core rules, truisms, traditions or beliefs that are currently holding this together but could possibly be challenged? 
  8. Where else in the world does a similar problem or pattern exist?
  9. What technical advances have emerged since this version’s construction that could be implemented for improvement?
  10. How durable is it, and where are the likely fault lines or soft spots?

Just like a good detective, we want to gather as much evidence as possible before reaching any conclusions.

Step 3: Rebuild

With insights from step 2, we now begin to reassemble the pieces with the goal of upgrading the end result. Give yourself permission to tinker a bit. At this stage, I like to run another playlist of questions:

  1. What is one new component I could add?
  2. What’s one thing I could subtract? Or substitute?
  3. If I could wave my magic wand to make this better, what would the end result look like?
  4. How can this be reassembled or rearranged to save time or money? Improve quality? Solve a new problem?
  5. How do other people solve a similar problem in my field? Outside my field?
  6. What ideas could I borrow from nature or art that could inspire an upgrade?
  7. How might I make it bigger, such as expanding the team size or productivity impact? Or smaller, such as getting the job done with a leaner footprint, less waste and faster delivery?
  8. If I have several possibilities, how can I build a prototype to quickly test them before proceeding?

The COVID-19 crisis has forced us all to hit the reset button, accelerating the rate of and need for change.  With the future of work shifting radically, it’s incumbent on HR professionals to explore new approaches rather than cling to old ones. To drive engagement, morale and high-performance, we must proactively confront the models of the past to discover new ones. To this end, the three-step approach (deconstruct, examine, rebuild) will help you lead the change rather than succumb to it.

As I built my businesses over the years, I’ve lived by a mantra: “Someday, a company is going to come along and put us out of business… it might as well be us.”  This same urgency for reinvention can help HR leaders lean into fresh possibilities, drive meaningful progress and enjoy sustainable success.

The Authors: 

Josh Linkner is a five-time tech entrepreneur, New York Times bestselling author, and venture capital investor.  His new book is Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results.