Poking a dirty finger into the wound

In July 1881 President James A. Garfield was shot while waiting to board a train in Washington, DC.  He lived for eleven weeks after the shooting, dying from sepsis on September 19, 1881. What’s intriguing about Garfield’s story is that the president likely would have survived the wound had not so many doctors tried to save him by sticking their germ-covered fingers into his body searching for the bullet. The doctor’s acted amidst the chaos and their actions probably cost Garfield his life.  Sure the assassin’s bullet started the string of events, but the doctors’ actions advanced the death forward.

This is the same process going on in our modern organizations.

Often the organization is ailing in some way.  Well-meaning managers attempt to save the organization by doing SOMETHING to it.  I shout SOMETHING because often it is as misguided and hope-driven as the doctor’s vainly poking away into President Garfield’s wounds.

What if we stop all of process YYY and replace it with ZZZ.  I don’t know why that would work, but it has to.  We have to do (say it with me) SOMETHING.”

I would reply:

No you don’t.  NO YOU DON’T!”

The contrast between damaging action-for-action’s sake and a second course, thoughtful–or even thoughtless–inaction, is a strong one in my family because of a long told family legend.

On the back of a family heirloom, hanging in my study (okay, my room with books and my computer–I’m not fancy enough to have a study) is a note that says my husband’s great-great-great grandfather was a local celebrity after the Garfield shooting, way back in 1881.  Why?  It reads:


James B. Smith

His War Record and Remarkable Wound

James B. Smith, of this City [Newburg, New York] has an army record that any man might well be proud of.

Mr. Smith was mustered in as a private in the 66th New York Volunteers on March 3, 1862, recruited in New York City.  This regiment was attached to the Third Brigade from March to August, 1862; First Brigade to Sept. ’62; Third Brigade to March ’64; Forth Brigade to April ’64.  As a member of the 65th Regiment Mr. Smith took part int he siege and capture of Yorktown, Va; Fair Oaks, seven days operations before Richmond, Gaines Mills, Peach Orchard, Savage Station, Malvern Hill, Antietam, where Mr. Smith was wounded; reconnoiter from Harper’s Ferry to Charleston, Fredericksburg, Dec 11-13, 1862.

At bloody Fredericksburg Mr. Smith was shot through the body, the ball passing through the right lung and liver and coming out in the back, making a complete channel through the victim’s body.  He was removed to Mount Pleasant Hospital and subsequently mustered out of service on account of nervous prostration caused by this terrible wound.

Mr. Smith’s gunshot wound received at Fredericksburg corresponded exactly with that experienced by President Garfield at the hands of Guiteau, and at the time when the President was thought to have a chance of recovery Mr. Smith was referred to at length in the columns of the New York Herald as the only man on record at the Government war department who had survived a wound of this description.

Mr. Smith is now an active member of Fullerton Post, No. 589 G.A.R.; and last year served as Senior Vice and aid-de-camp on General Curti’s staff.  Mr. Smith is one of the most energetic and enthusiastic Grand Army men in the State, and to see him today one would not believe it possible that he had once been shot clear through the body and left for dead on the crimson-dyed heights of Fredericksburg.

My husband–and by extension my children–exist today because Civil War doctor’s didn’t bother to act to interfere with the course that Mr. Smith was on.  On that cold December day in 1862 Mr. Smith was shot just short of the Confederate lines at the base of St. Mary’s Heights.  He lay in the field all day if not overnight, before being hauled back to a field hospital.  No one was going to risk their lives to save a seemingly mortally wounded private. Back at the battlefield hospital no one bothered to do more than dress the wounds.  If he lived, he lived.  If he died, he died.  That was the way it was.  Their pragmatic approach to his survival saved his life.

The bottom line is:  You can do real harm in an organization if you try to fix it by poking at it blindly in the hope that doing SOMETHING has to be better than doing nothing.  SOMETHING is not always better than nothing.  More organization fixers would do well to learn that lesson.

3 thoughts on “Poking a dirty finger into the wound”

  1. April

    How do you know when to do nothing as opposed to doing SOMETHING?

    What do you give those people who have to do SOMETHING to do?


  2. April K. Mills

    Joe – Great questions. I think some clear cases of when to do nothing as opposed to something are when the only reason you would do something is because someone is watching you and you think you must act. Actions launched for show (to look concerned or appear like you are in charge) are often the most hollow, pointless actions. Reading the accounts of Garfield’s care, the doctors were fighting over who had Garfield’s best interests in mind and who should be considered his physician, vice how to pool their knowledge of bullet wounds to save him. The interest of some was appearances first, patient second. In those cases, doing nothing is often if not always the better course.

    As to the second question, depending on the circumstances (because everything is context driven) there are often plenty of things that must be done that aren’t being done that would produce no harm, but would keep idle hands busy, including reading up on key topics (which might help them diagnose real problems and craft real solutions in the future) or completing minor self-achievable tasks that don’t induce any action in others. The problem with their doing SOMETHING is often not in the action they take, but in the consequence of that action in everyone else. If you can cut their actions off from others in the system, then you can protect the system from the drama generated. If they don’t launch another team to take on an issue that has been worked on year after year after year to the same list of actions that never get done and wouldn’t change anything anyway, then we’re all time and money ahead.

    Clearer examples are hard to paint without offering paragraphs of context and referring too closely to things I’d rather not in an already long comment.

    Thanks for pushing on me though to elaborate. We’ll have to talk more offline.

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