You may have heard the Latin phrase, Primum non nocere, which means “first, do no harm.” Although it’s often associated with the physician’s Hippocratic Oath, the original oath does not include the precise phrase. It is, however, taught in medical schools as part of medical ethics classes and it has an important connotation for those of us who serve end-users and other customers.
As we evaluate possible solutions to end-user or customer problems, as we consider updating software or implementing new technologies, and as we consider retiring old software or equipment, the very first question we should ask ourselves is, “Will the benefits of this solution or upgrade outweigh the pain of the transition?”
Sometimes, the answer is a very clear “yes”, such as a migration from Windows NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 and Active Directory, from typewriters to computers, from the telegraph to the telephone (although there was resistance to the adoption of the telephone by people who thought the telegraph was perfectly adequate for communication!), from steam to diesel locomotives, or from oil lamps to electric lighting. Other times, the answer is not nearly as clear such as when a software upgrade requires hours of re-training for only modest improvements in productivity or when a poorly tested upgrade causes massive system failures.
Even when we’re not responsible for such large strategic decisions as company-wide software upgrades, we must still remember Primum non nocere as we work with our end-users and customers to solve issues with software, equipment, and other products. It may be something as simple as instructing an end-user in performing a backup prior to applying a software upgrade or it may require that we test solutions in a lab environment before recommending them to a customer.
Primum no nocere also means that we must thoroughly understand the user’s or customer’s problem, environment, and business needs as we evaluate solutions. That means we must be good listeners and not jump to conclusions without gaining a complete understanding of the particular issue or problem.
It’s even more than technical considerations. We must also evaluate how our interaction with an end-user or customer might affect our future relationship and our department or company’s future relationship with that end-user or customer. If our behavior with an individual is off-putting or offensive, we run the risk of losing the confidence of that customer or end-user, thus losing their future business or discouraging him or her from seeking our assistance on future problems.
On a personal level, might a casual rant on Facebook or an offhand comment that I make unintentionally harm someone or harm a relationship with a friend. Primum non nocere even applies to personal relationships!
As with many pieces of advice about working with end-users, customers, and other people, it’s easy to remember Primum no nocere when everything is going well. I hope I can remember it during times of conflict or stress!