It is what it is

A buddy of mine says he hates this saying because it is pretty stupid.  “Of course it is what it is, what else could it be?”, he says.  “Could it be [not what it is] or is it [something similar or in addition to what it is]?  No, that wouldn’t make any sense. Doy!”  He views it as a statement of the obvious, like “This water sure is wet”.  (which always makes me laugh inside, for some reason)

I don’t mind it so much.  When I hear this, it usually means: “it is already too late to avoid this outcome.  We shouldn’t dwell on it. Let’s just accept it and move-on.”  I agree with the concept.  However, when you find yourself saying “it is what it is”, that is usually an indicator this could be a learning moment.  So, at some point, there may be some value in dwelling on it for a few minutes.  I just shouldn’t do it right now, because we have a fire to put out.

Like everyone, my hind-sight is 20/20 (+/-), so it is easy to jump to the conclusion that [making things right], shouldn’t be too much to expect.  It is very easy to think that hindsight should translate into an equally accurate fore-sight, but it does not.  Is it possible that people simply toss an “it is what it is” label on the mess and walk away, never looking back?  IKR.  When I’ve got the time, I find myself obliged to stop for a moment and consider things: “That was odd, how did it get that way?” Certainly, there were decisions that led to this point. 

  • How/why did this course get chosen over others?
  • It must have been unclear that this would be the result but why was it unclear?
  • Were there other factors that influenced this decision (no better options, other options were restricted in some way)?
  • Maybe some of those choices may have been good ones at the time, and something changed along the way. 
  • Maybe this actually is the intended outcome, but how/why?

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not to say that all messes in IT can be justified.  Truly, some of them are the result of laziness, incompetence or even narcissism.  Some people just do dumb or bad things.  Some people don’t even care.  However, not everything that stinks is bad.  Maybe it is some form of compost that will later result in great growth.  Maybe.

Fertilizer usually comes from waste and decay.  The same thing works for mistakes too.  When things didn’t turn out the way you wanted them to, the entire value of it might be in the form of lessons learned.  Regardless of the limitations of some people, they are guided (to some degree) to make those decisions (good or bad) versus other decisions (which arguably, may have been just as bad).  Sometimes, the cure may seem worse than the poison.  And sometimes, people just did the best that they could with the resources that they had at the time.  Without better guidance or planning, it is not realistic to expect much better.

So, to analyze a stinky mess and extract some value from it, start by applying some engineering principles (processes):

  • This might be a pattern.  Find a way to identify this pattern so you can recognize it in the future.
  • Identify the good stuff (if any) so you can use/mimic it again.  This might require some discernment, but it may be worth it.
  • Identify the bad stuff so you can avoid it in the future
  • Identify the elements that contributed to the good and the bad. (so you can re-use them or avoid them)
  • Identify conditions in which good/bad stuff became better/worse/opposite, so you can apply each properly

At this point, people will suspect that you are over-analyzing the situation.  So, try to keep it to yourself, until you have purified your conclusions.  Otherwise, people will suspect that you have not recognized that “it is what it is” and scourge you with that saying a few more times until you begin to dread it.  Be strong.  The world “is what it is” because too many people haven’t learned from mistakes and are making it what it is.  You need to care enough to improve it.

In the end, you might find a lot of value from the whole event, but even if you don’t, do not give up.  The next stinker might yield a pay-off.  I like the quote “you can learn more from your failures than from success”.  I may be paraphrasing Samuel Smalls, but you get the picture.  Don’t squander this opportunity.

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About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
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