Good intentions – but bad interventions will lead you where you really don’t want to be

The 12th century Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Despite good intentions, too many organisations make bad interventions that cause them to end up somewhere they really don’t want to be.

Why do most organisational improvement efforts deliver such poor results? There’s one overriding reason. They fail to take sufficient account of the organisation’s unique circumstances.

The best interventions will  be uniquely tailored to the actual organisational situation. They will get the brakes off performance by freeing up and engaging the skills, capabilities and capacities of the people in the organisation to find solutions for themselves.

The main reason organisations don’t achieve this is that they fail to see the specific root causes of the braking friction holding them back.

These root causes are different in each organisation. They are however always to be found in limitations of seeing and being that specifically affect just a few specific key people, but systemically undermine collective performance. (You can find out more by watching my senior executive’s 20-minute video guide – get free access here).

The best interventions will focus explicitly and specifically on escaping these critical traps.

Good intentions  and the “Three R’s” of bad interventions

The “Three R’s” was a popular expression in 19th century education. It referred to the three basic skills that students were expected to learn at school – Reading, Writing and Reckoning – or in later versions Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. The fact that one (or later two) of the words did not actually begin with the letter “R” was typical of Victorian humour. (The pub across the road from my Victorian-era house in Cambridge UK was originally called “The Dewdrop Inn” – a play on the phrase “Do drop in”).

By contrast, the “Three R’s” of bad interventions do not even enjoy the saving grace of irony. They are Reorganisation, Regimentation and Retraining.

ReorganisationGood intentions - reorganisation

Following a tradition that stretches back at least to the Roman Empire, organisations meet each new situation by reorganising.

Then, when the reorganised organisation still underperforms, they reorganise again.

Then when it still doesn’t perform, they bring in external advisors who recommend a different reorganisation…


Organisations approach the problem by adding more rules, systems and procedures.

Good intentions - regimentation

This usually means adding to an existing set of rules that people don’t actually follow anyway.

When the organisation discovers people are ‘non-compliant’ it ramps up extrinsic rewards and punishments to ‘encourage’ them.

This may result in short-term compliance, but kills long-term performance by reducing engagement, stifling innovation and disenfranchising customers.

Worst of all, regimentation in the last thing organisations should be doing in an increasingly VUCA world.


Good intentions - retraining

Organisations roll out company-wide retraining, often badged with the seemingly more enlightened term ‘learning and development’.

The roll-out of the ‘latest thing’ starts with the selection and training of internal facilitators.

These chosen few are ‘certified’ as ‘master practitioners’, ‘black belts’ or even ‘master black belts’.

These in-house ‘masters’ are let loose and charged with dragging everyone else through the sheep dip.

Good intentions – back to the future

A few weeks after the latest wave of reorganisation, regimentation or retraining has rolled on through, everything drifts back to ‘normal’. The sign of an organisation reverting “back to the future” is that the original problem symptoms return:

  • like weeds cut down but their roots left intact;
  • stronger and more deeply rooted than before;
  • accompanied by their friends, in the form of new compounding side-effects.

Many organisations go through multiple cycles of the Three R’s, hoping that this time the results will be different.

Only when they have failed to tackle the root causes of braking friction do organisations  end up repeatedly doing what doesn’t work.

Why do so many organisations keep repeating these failed Three R’s interventions? Well, in the absence of more effective alternatives, it’s easy to feel that it’s better to do something, even something that probably won’t work, than to do nothing.

Good intentions in your organisation

What good intentions have led to interventions based on the Three R’s?

Where is your organisation trapped in “doing more of what doesn’t work”?

Which specific seeing-being traps are causing the braking friction that’s holding your organisation back?

Share on Social Media