“What’s wrong with taking the easy way?”
Sometimes the answer to our problem seems easy. But the easy solution may not always be the right one. Today in “Lines for Leaders” I’ll share what one famous person said about the dangers of taking the “easy way,” along with some thoughts about how we can make sure that even if we can’t do what’s easiest, we can always do what’s best.
The Person, The Quote
Anton Chekhov survived an abusive father and a childhood of poverty as he grew up in Russia in the late 19th century. Despite many hardships, he managed to earn a medical degree even while supporting his family. But writing was his first love.
Chekhov wrote prolifically, ultimately gaining fame not only for his short stories and plays, but also for his influence on modern theater. One recent commentator said that only Shakespeare outranks Chekhov in the number of modern adaptations of his plays.
Of the millions of words he has written, somewhere along the line, he said this:
About the time Chekhov was born, scientists were formulating the laws of thermodynamics, and in a way, he was paraphrasing the second law. In a closed system, entropy increases over time. Left on their own, things naturally become less organized.
When my son was growing up, we used to joke that he was the embodiment of entropy as a way of explaining the condition of his room. It takes extra energy to make the bed and pick up the toys.
Entropy is natural and comes easy. But easy isn’t always best. Like looking for something in a messy room, it’s harder to find anything, and all the time you are at risk of stepping on a Lego block in your bare feet. Entropy can be dangerous.
In a sense I think what Chekhov is saying is that if we expect “easy” than we need to keep our expectations for everything else very low. Order and progress don’t come from “easy.” We have to inject energy into the system.
As leaders, we have to be ready to do what is not easy.
Here are four temptingly easy things we should avoid if we want to keep entropy at bay.
Take the bait. Sometimes when facing a problem, there seems to be an easy answer. But like a hungry mouse coming across a block of cheese, the easy answer might just be the most dangerous. As H.L. Mencken once said,
When looking for solutions, we have to do the hard work of getting clear on what the problem really is, coming up with several good quality options, and then forcing ourselves to come up with one more. One of the main ingredients in the formula for success is sweat.
Don’t talk about it. When hard “people issues” arise, the easy way to deal with them is avoidance. But left to fester, simple misunderstandings can harden into set attitudes and problematic behaviors. The longer we put off dealing with them, the worse they become and the harder to fix.
As Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership suggests, if instead we make the effort to have lots of conversations with our teammates, it will be much easier to address the negatives when the time comes.
Follow the crowd. There is safety in numbers, and it’s easy to follow a well-worn path. But that path doesn’t always lead where we need to go.
As Steven Covey likes to say, we could be making great progress cutting our way through the jungle. The hard thing for the leader to do is to climb one of those trees, look around, and tell the team “we’re in the wrong jungle!” Especially when the response is likely to be, “Shut up! We’re making progress.”
Look away. There are values, and then there is getting stuff done. Sometimes the two can seem to get in each other’s way. What’s easy is to turn a blind eye. We can pretend not to notice when a “star teammate” disrespects someone, or we can let quality standards slip “just this once” in order to get a shipment out on time.
But that’s a false path, too. The first exception paves the way for more, and soon living up to the values we espouse becomes the exception. Then we wonder why our team’s culture doesn’t match the pretty values poster that’s hanging on the wall.
Taking the Easy Way – The Takeaway
Taking the easy way invites entropy. Entropy is another word for chaos, and a common way to talk about good leaders is those who are able to bring order out of chaos.
Chekhov is telling us that if we want to avoid chaos, we can’t expect things to be easy.
We have to be ready to put energy into the system. We have to be ready to do hard things.
That’s how we avoid the natural pull of entropy, the deceitful lure of the easy, and Lego blocks under foot.