Over the last couple of weeks I’ve thought a few times back to things that happened in the last few years at work, and made some connections between them and other things that happened in other places I have worked.

One of the concepts I keep coming back to is that of maintenance – and how often in organisations we focus on the novel, that new project or initiative, rather than maintaining what was already working, or even just the last new thing that we decided to do.

I’ve worked in enough organisations now to see how often new initiatives come along. They usually start with a lot of activity and effort. They might have a name, a ‘brand’, and may be building on something that other organisations do, that has been seen to work elsewhere. Sometimes they have been selected to address a particular challenge the organisation is facing. Sometimes it’s more about being inspired by the new and the promise that it has.

There might be a consultation, there will be a strategy, a presentation, lots of encouragement to get started and maybe some opportunities to share good practice and examples.

I am sure that some of you read the last paragraph in a weary tone, because we’ve all seen this so many times. And what often comes next is a petering out of all the effort and the thing itself until we get back to what was normal again.

I think there is a feeling that if initiatives are truly worth it they should need the energy to kick off, and then they should coast forward. Only in the vacuum of space would that work, and even then you’d eventually end up being pulled around by the gravity of some large object you hadn’t anticipated.

It seems to me that thinking about how something is going to be maintained is at least as important as how it is going to be kicked off. How maintenance will work is also often more fundamental to the nature of the thing than the launch is, with its recognisable pattern of activities mentioned above.

Considering maintenance involves considering how something is actually going to be used in context, how it will interact with what is already there, and how it could be blocked, undermined or eroded over time.

I’ve become very aware of these issues over the last year as we’re renovated the house we bought at the end of 2020. We’ve done lots of things ourselves, and we’ve had lots of others done by professionals. While cost is often front of mind when doing tasks such as this yourself, there is also the benefit that you understand the the things you have learned how to do better. You learned how to get them done, but in doing so you’ve probably learned a good deal of what you need to keep them maintained.

I’m not sure this analogy holds for initiatives in knowledge work organisations. There is a certain lack of attention that sets in with familiarity, but my house renovations are going to show if they start to need maintenance. This can be less obvious if an approach to collaborative working or a communication strategy is starting to creak. It’s harder to notice, and addressing the problems does not always require the same techniques as creating the thing did.

Something that can help hugely with maintaining things, and is often entirely missing in the house renovation sphere, is documentation. Not just the documentation to kick something off, but the tools to keep it going. The initiatives that have lasted that I can think of often gave people tools to do something, even if they were just template documents to complete as you were doing it to prompt you to do and think about the right things. I’m sure we can all think about examples of documentation like this that were too onerous and antithetical to maintaining something. However, if the level of detail and accessibility of these are right they can really help to maintain initiatives that are otherwise quite hard to pin down, and easy to drift away from.

Another issue that considering maintenance brings to the forefront is capacity. If initiatives are going to involve ongoing effort then they cannot be so numerous as to exceed the effort available. Considering what is really needed to maintain something is going to make it very obvious that you won’t be able to implement a new initiative quarter after quarter unless you get more people to do it or start dropping other existing things.

The core of this that I’ve been thinking about is that everything you start requires maintenance to keep going. You’re not just taking on the initial cost of it, you are taking on an ongoing payment of time, effort or money to keep it going. I know thinking about it like this might change some of my decisions about what I start.






5 responses to “Maintenance”

  1. Julia Skinner Avatar
    Julia Skinner

    As I was reading this, I was reminded of the builder who was part of the team adding extra classrooms to my school that was going from a junior school to a primary with the increase of the infants up the hill.
    He explained that there is an 80/20 split. 80% of the work often takes 20% of the time & it is that last 20% of work that takes 80 percent of the time & cost.
    It was easy to see how frustrations crept in when the build itself seemed to go up very quickly. We could see it & got very excited about moving but of course, until that final 20% was completed we couldn’t go anywhere.
    Maintenance is that 20% that needs to be built in. It is often the boring bits that you con’t see, but without it the project (or building) is likely to fall.

    1. Oliver Quinlan Avatar
      Oliver Quinlan

      That resonates for me with our house refurb too. About 6 months of doing the 80% and I am still chipping away at the 20% a year later!

  2. IanH Avatar

    This is all too familiar in both education (where I now work) and the technology sector (where I started my working life)!

    They intersect at home, where my son has inherited my interests and we now have various servers running, which he has delighted in setting up and which I now have to remember to maintain (as, not being shiny, he has lost interest in but we as a family have come to rely on – home automation, file sharing, media server, etc).

    Even in education, how often do we forget to “maintain” our curriculum? I was so pleased when my director of computing scheduled our final HoD meeting this year as a half day of revisiting the curriculum plans ahead of next year, ensuring that the various medium term plans will at least have a chance to be readdressed *before* the year starts instead of the normal mad-panic of hitting a module and realizing you left it covered in post-its of things that needed tweaking.

    Enjoy your new stream of posts, btw, very thought-provoking thanks.

    1. Oliver Quinlan Avatar
      Oliver Quinlan

      That’s interesting in the home server side – so often I think we start to rely on things before we take on board the full cost of maintaining them (money wise or time wise).

      Sounds like a great initiative to maintain the curriculum. When I was training teachers I had to cover teaching a geography module. It not being my main thing every time I came to do it I realised I had meant to update the materials, but never go around to doing it formally and instead had to tweak as I went every time.

      Thanks, glad you are enjoying the posts!

  3. Josh Avatar

    Excellent observation

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