You and your team are standing outside of a burning building. The fire isn’t very big yet but its obvious that it has the potential to become a major conflagration. Time is a key element in any damage control situation. Yes, it’s important to understand the threat in order to apply the right resources and equipment. But the real time to assess the threat is long before the threat emerges. Decisions have consequences. So do mistakes in most large organizations.
Back to the burning building scenario. Here is one of the strategies that I have seen that absolutely astounded me:
Let’s form a steering group!
This is an incredibly effective way for “managers” not to be tagged with any imminent failures. It’s somewhat logical to a matrix organization since it will give the illusion that all of the stakeholders will be represented and heard.
A steering group is kind of like back in the old west days when the savage Indians attacked the poor defenseless wagon train. You circle the wagons as quickly as you can and the theory is that you will be able to bring more firepower into play and hopefully last until the cavalry finally arrives. The “leaders” (minus the aloof Wagon Master who does not like conflict) all get their wagons settled in and meet in the middle to figure out what to do next. (Is this really the right place to start discussing what a good plan of action is?)
The Indians will then play their traditional role and circle the outer edges of the wagons shouting and screaming and allowing themselves to ride just slowly enough to be shot out off of their horses.
Here’s the rub: sooner or later the Indians figure out that if they don’t ride around your wagons, they will live longer. Not only that, but then they can probe you for your weaknesses and find the right spot to attack.
Let’s look at your circled wagons for a minute.
The first Wagon is called Cost. Formulating a cost and it’s resulting price is not that hard really. First, what do the materials and efforts to manufacture them into something new cost? How about your buildings and utilities? If you want a really good wagon, it will need upkeep and maintenance. Fancy wagons need good structure so you will have lots of policies and people to enforce those policies. As the wagon gets heavier with all those requirements, you will have to add more support structure to the wagon itself. Its like a never ending cycle.
Plus in some really big wagon trains, everybody wants to add something to the Cost wagon. Fees and inner company surcharges and handling charges and on and on add more and more weight to an already overweight wagon. It’s a wonder the axles don’t collapse from the strain. Also, right before the wagon train left, all of the drivers got together and decided this was really hard and dangerous work. Yep, you got it, the Teamsters were born (Local #1)
But one key element about price is often beyond your ability to really control. What is the customer willing to pay?
The second wagon is called Quality. This is a very important part of the wagon train because without quality the wheels will fall off. How it is achieved however is quite another thing. Every wagon maker has a different way of making Quality a priority. There is a cost for quality but it too is considered a part of the cost of doing wagon trains. The simple answer is that there are two ways of delivery Quality: you can either build it in or you can spend untold hours checking and rechecking. The bad part about the second choice is that sooner or later the people who build the wagons figure out that the need for built in quality is not so important. Sometimes you just have to make a few sacrifices along the way and not to worry: somebody at the end of the line will be checking anyway, right?
The third wagon is called Delivery. Frankly with the wagons in a circle you won’t be delivering very much. The people at the beginning of the wagon trail had all the best intentions and tried to base their decisions on provisioning and resources based on experience. But once the train left for the old west, there was no such thing as continuous improvement. You just keep slogging along through the rain and the mud and the snow until that one fine day when those pesky Indians show up.
The fourth wagon is called Safety. Since the day the wagon train left the trail head, Safety has been a pain in the Wagon Master’s butt. It always wants to be first. Around the campfires at night Safety keeps agitating and agitating and the Wagon Master (who really doesn’t like conflict) finds the arguments pretty persuasive. So do the Teamsters. The wave of anxiety keeps rising until it drowns out all the other reasonable voices. They know safety is important, but at what cost? If anyone waivers, Safety pulls out it’s charts and gruesome pictures and keeps badgering people with the famous words “Do you want this on your conscience? DO YOU???”
At one point Safety even convinced the other leadership members to reduce the amount of powder in their weapons. After all, that much powder has been proven by OSHA to be a dangerous element. Someone could get hurt so it must be dealt with NOW at all costs. Rather than being a balanced and integral part of the train, Safety finally overcomes Cost, Quality and Delivery in importance and virtually drowns out the last wagon: Innovation.
Innovation used to be first in the wagon train when it started. The riders on this wagon were the lifeblood of the train and constantly came up with better and better designs and tools. When the folks at the destination end of the trail first contracted with the wagon train company, they liked the idea that innovation was going to be leading the train. But somewhere along the way innovation started getting in the way of cost, quality and delivery. Safety had always turned a jaundiced eye towards innovation for all the risks involved so it didn’t take much for that poor little wagon to slip further and further back in the train.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the last wagon on the train. You are constantly eating someone else’s dust, you rarely know where the wagon train is going any more and you just kind of slip into a state of suspended animation. Hopefully you had enough innovative contributions at the beginning of the trail because Lord knows you aren’t making much headway now. Frankly, Innovation is kind of glad the wagons are circled now since they don’t have to keep up the illusion of needing to make any forward progress.
This time the Indians do not do what the wagon train expects them to do. They realize that if they have better ways to overcome Cost, Quality, Delivery and Innovation, the wagon train will be defeated. (Even the Indians don’t want to mess with Safety.) Word has it that Safety has direct connections with the Great Spirits (AKA Human Resources) and it would not be wise to directly challenge it. Instead, they flood the path with sharp arrows and animal droppings forcing Safety to form endless committees to discuss the potential dangers. Since there are limited resources in the wagon train, this will draw fighters away creating even greater weak places for the Indians to take advantage of.
All the while, the committee has been meeting feverishly in the center of the wagons. Some have argued for more and more resources and a better place in the train that will emerge from the crisis. Some sit in their places, quietly waiting for someone else to screw up. Their main theme is “never make eye contact”. Rather than actually being at their wagons and helping to fight back the attack, they have been busily putting sticky notes on the white board, surfing the internet and having frank discussions about what is really wrong. Rather than use their years and years of actual experience to lower their Cost, improve their Quality and and make their Delivery more effective, they have huddled in a circle outside of the hearing of the rest of the people in the wagons.
The only hope left is the arrival of the Cavalry.
The cavalry has been off at a week long seminar getting in touch with their emotions and failed to understand the real threat at hand. When they do arrive, the train is fairly decimated (but imminently safety conscious). The Captain calls out, “Who is in Charge here?” The Wagon Master emerges from his private wagon looking harassed and haggard. He has been busy telegraphing headquarters giving them hourly updates on the threat. His fingers are stained with ink from the many graphs and charts he has been creating for the eventual post mortem.
The Wagon Master looks at the devastation in shock and utter surprise. His glowing reports on progress to headquarters were littered with vague connotations about “beating the enemy at his own game” and “the tide is about to turn now” even though he had rarely stepped out of his luxuriously paneled wagon during the attack. He turns to the Cavalry Captain saying: “I formed a steering group. They knew the importance of the outcome. They controlled all of their own resources with no interference from me. I supported them all the way by staying out of their way. I just don’t understand why they failed…”
You and your team are standing outside of a burning building. The fire isn’t very big yet but its obvious that it has the potential to become a major conflagration. Time is a key element in any damage control situation. In my humble opinion, forming a steering committee is the biggest surrender of leadership you could commit. Competition is the fire. The building is your business. It takes leadership to really deal with crisis and change. Leadership involves risk. If you routinely put a committee between yourself and the fire, you will all get burned.
No one living, dead or yet to be born should ever be perceived as having been represented in this short allegorical illustration… I apologize to any Indians of any tribe who may be offended by this fictional diatribe… I love you guys and have spent a lot of money at your casinos to prove it… my sincere apologies to all Safety Professionals who’s goals in life are to prevent injuries and permanent damage to their people (I know that none of you would ever put your inflated ego ahead of anyone’s safety or career)… and to all of my Brothers and Sisters in HR, you know I respect you in an appropriate way that is non-committal, deemed to be offensive, and certainly not intended to breach any known or unknown policies in regards to race, creed, color, sex, sexual persuasion, fevered imagination of an imaginary threat or in any way that might possibly demean or diminish any individual freedom or right in anyone except myself and all those like me who do not otherwise fit into a protected category by Federal Law and secret tribunals.