This week I found myself using a one-liner that I’ve not used for sometime; application not replication. Many of us use one-liners because they often communicate a learning or experience in a very succinct way and avoid the need to use too many words. That said, one-liners are often just phrases we’ve picked up and tend to use randomly in any given conversation.

Then there are one-liners that have a deep and profound meaning to each of us because we have lived the experience rather than having just heard about it. For me, application not replication is one of those “one-liners”. This one-liner relates to a common mistake people make in many areas of life but for the purpose of this article let’s just say it relates to business. It refers to previous success and failure, to the things we did or didn’t do in other roles and positions we’ve held in companies.

For me, it was learning over a period of 20 years in my career that the very things that had worked so well in a previous role which resulted in enormous success could not be replicated in a new role in much the same way but rather the learnings had to applied. This is where application not replication comes in. I’ve seen this in many organizations at the senior management and executive level where people move companies, take new roles that have prominent titles and the expectations to go with them and then struggle to achieve the goals and objectives that they were known for in a previous life. Companies hire people that perform well, they want individuals that are proven, have had demonstrable success and exemplify the values that are important for their long term success as an organization. In many cases that is exactly what they get but in many more cases it isn’t.

While there are differing reasons for this, I can say with certainty that many a time it comes back to the failure to apply this principle of application not replication. Quite often, people enter a new role with the solution in mind rather than understanding all the problems they need to resolve. They may not articulate it this way but many have a perceived notion of how to fix almost every problem they’ve encountered or heard about in the new role they are taking because they assume it can be dealt with in the exact same way it was in their previous role. Never wanting to be accused of stating the obvious, I’m guessing you are thinking that this is something that everyone should just understand so why is it worth writing about?

This is worth writing about because I’ve recently watched a C level executive come into a new role where he was expected to establish a change program that would improve the companies ability to compete as well innovate and after nearly three quarters on the job he has struggled to define what that program should look like. It is not an issue of aptitude because he is an intelligent and established business professional who has had success in previous roles. Of course, I would say that there is always a learning curve in a new company and there will be some skills that we won’t have as we go from one role to another but the problem is much simpler because in this case you can trace it back to the belief that replicating the same practices would have the same effect but in a greater way since this new role and challenge is much bigger. This sort of sounds like doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – where have I heard that?

Equally, I believe we too are subject to this same trap. Because it is a trap that can be continuous, we need to continuously monitor and assess our current environment and fully understand the problems we must solve and then overlay the learnings we’ve brought with us to see if they apply. Sometimes we simply won’t have the answer and this is where surrounding yourself with people that are smarter than you makes sense because they’ll have a perspective you haven’t considered if not the answer itself.

It is easy for us and our people to get frustrated or even cynical and critical when things don’t seem to be moving as fast as we would all like because change is hard, the pressure is on and the clock is ticking. This is why a retrospective is a simply but effective practice. We need to stop periodically, get a heartbeat and see where we are and what we have done or haven’t done. It is one way of practicing the process of elimination and the process of investigation so we can rule out whether we’ve been forcing an approach based on replicating vs. applying.

Here is a mental checklist to help us avoid the trap:

  • If things aren’t working well now, think back to when they were and recall what you were doing then; you will likely discover you may have drifted off the path a bit and gotten away from the practices that were doing the job in exchange for something too complex
  • If its not broken it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fix it; an attitude of awareness and change often proves to be more effective than an attitude of complacency and procrastination
  • Remember that reputation is something that you’ve brought with you, its not who you are now; we can’t live off of yesterday’s successes or yesterday’s lunch (at least I can’t)
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