P, as in... Problems
By Frédéric SOS - September 21, 2019
"We're here to solve problems!"
... is the answer I got a few weeks back after quizzing the audience during the introduction to my talk with a startling question: "Can you tell me exactly what purpose you serve?".
The talk, pompously entitled "The evolution of corporate governance systems", gathered some 60 heads of small and medium-sized firms (i.e. workforce typically ranging from 100 to 600 employees). My retort, "like car mechanics, you mean", did once the laughs died down generate consternation among some attendees.
Is a manager's value added boosted through problems faced, or imposed, that he or she successfully resolves? It goes without saying that under such circumstances, a manager's utility is unquestionable and his/her expertise no doubt highly appreciated. A future installment of this series will focus on how a manager's expertise underpins his/her legitimacy.
However, in light of the scope of problems that may potentially arise inside a company, doesn't the manager run the risk of expending too much energy on problem-solving? And, by the same occasion, of quickly earning a reputation as the preeminent troubleshooter when something goes wrong? Other company personnel will then realize that the best way to handle a problem is to refer it up the hierarchy, thereby renouncing their personal involvement. The net result is entering into a vicious cycle forcing the manager to take charge of increasingly operational matters, all the while railing against the staff's lack of autonomy and commitment.
But can you reasonably find fault here; doesn't the "human" scale of the companies being run by attendees of that evening's talk justify such hands-on involvement? Perhaps, although…
In 2007, the fleet of an automobile group, whose sales had failed to meet market forecasts on some of its models, was becoming bloated. The outdoor storage lots couldn't hold any more vehicles. The President was baffled during a gathering held on the subject and, more specifically, on the corrosion problem caused by cast iron brake discs, whose visibility was now undermining the appearance of what was otherwise a new product. Motorists by and large are aware that driving down the road a stretch in tapping the brakes a few times generally restores a shiny disc, but this President was not an automobile insider and couldn't comprehend... He asked whether another material should be used; the misdirected response suggested carbon, a material more suitable for race cars. He proposed studying the idea, exposing a poor assessment of the tremendous additional cost inherent in resolving this "false" problem. He was the object of much ridicule from participants.
I'm reminded of the demand made by the Founder and President of a Laboratory with the same name directed at his management team: "If a problem gets routed all the way back to us, it shows that our organization was incapable of handling it, hence an indicator of weakness!". I must admit that many inside the Lab perceived this demand as an order to address issues at their level with the resources at hand, yet this demand also fostered an extraordinary internal commitment to settle company-wide concerns at their source.
Beyond the risk of shirking responsibility that we just cited, another question treats how best to measure the efficiency of such a posture for resolving problems (with symptoms often affecting the entire team) when embraced by senior management.
In 2008, the Executive Committee of an industrial firm, also within the automobile sector, was presented with the results of a biannual client satisfaction survey with respect to the firm's network. The results turned out to be... disastrous. So bad that the meeting's agenda was completely altered, and the Executive Committee was asked to immediately come up with an action plan. This motion was executed with considerable discipline and commitment, in record time. In just 90 minutes, "7 strategic action themes" had been identified (I'm always amazed by the frequency with which these two words, strategy and action, get associated, most likely so that the weaknesses of one are offset by the strengths of the other). Each of these themes was broken down into 5 high-profile actions, all of which were assigned to a "manager" (let's note that only one of these managers was in attendance). Moreover, each action was tied to a deadline, beyond which its implementation needed to be exhibited. The Director of Quality Assurance took the next step, eagerly explaining the dashboard layout, at the center of a new reporting system intended to better monitor completion of the adopted action plan.
The network perception problems had been dealt with! The mood suddenly got a whole lot better, team members' satisfaction was indeed noticeable... until the Industrial Director took the mic, offering an underhanded (yet pertinent) observation that the response crafted was exactly the same as that targeting the same difficulties two years prior, "with the outcome everyone knows". This interloper who soured the mood was dismissed for failing to not only account for the change in context but also recognize that this time around staff commitment would no doubt yield a different outcome. In 2010, the company had shared its structural challenges with the network, in addition to the ensuing dissatisfaction expressed by clients.
The action plan is the trump card played by ExCom's seeking to "solve their problems". Many of these teams have thus become action plan experts, and their ability to quickly hash out a plan conveys mastery over the problem, which tends to reassure a large swath of stakeholders both inside and outside the company.
If we accepted the notion that acting leads to progress, then we would also have to note the major confusion existing between "acting" and "achieving". It may at times be tempting to privilege quality and keep pressure high, to improve precision and oversee use, to disseminate measurements with great care, all while focusing on mitigating the pressure problem.
In my upcoming posts, I'll often refer to the Dream Team with which I had the honor to collaborate for a few years running. During my initial exchange with a team member, I refused to host an event dedicated to deriving and building an action plan intended to eliminate "obstacles" strewn along the path. This refusal sparked a most exciting collaboration. When interacting with the team for the first time, I had to defend my position. After a brief conversation, I was solicited with the following remark: "OK, I think we've all understood that we're not necessarily here to solve problems... but I'm still wondering what purpose do we actually serve then?"