Hot Potato – Why We Need To Rethink Management

Remember that childhood game, “Hot Potato”?   You would take a ball, beanbag or other item and pretend it’s a hot potato.  As soon as you got it you’d pass it on to the next person.   Then at the end of the music, a timer or just a random announcement from the game master – whoever is holding the hot potato loses.

Child’s game?  Or is it how we manage our companies?  If it is, we need to find a way out of this trap.  It kills productivity, destroys job satisfaction and dooms us to a world of enforced mediocrity.   That’s what I was thinking about the other day.  Here’s how it started.  Mistakes happen.  We had a couple of them this week.  One of them troubled me in particular.  We had a program that we were alpha testing in a live setting.  When we went back to analyze the results we saw that a problem that we had reported and which was reported as fixed before was still there.  It hadn’t been fixed.  

The person responsible for user testing missed it.  It wasn’t a terrible loss – we were in alpha testing.  And truth be told, it’s not a client project, it’s an internal development, but still — we invested time as a firm, we would love to get this out of development and into the market, and the staff working on it do cost us money.  So it is disappointing.

I’m sure that the person doing the testing will take responsibility for missing it.  But that’s not my question.  Why did the error even make it’s way to testing – especially after it had been identified previously?  Why only now was the programmer going to do a “volume test”.   Why is it that “next time” the tester will be “extra careful”?     I like my team – but I didn’t like the answer.

We were busy.

Don’t get me wrong.  I get the busy part of it.  It was a hell of a week for the person who was doing this testing.  In fact, the past few weeks have been tough.  Certainly they shouldn’t feel great about missing something this big under any circumstances.   But I can’t accept that the problem starts and stops there.

What about the programmer.  Was he playing “hot potato”.  Did he do what I was supposed to and pass it to the next person?

This is the type of crap that caused me to leave corporate life and start my own company.   I remember it all too well.  High pressure jobs.  Unrealistic deadlines.  Steering committee and management meetings where punishment was dealt to those who had “dropped the ball”.   I used to joke that if you went to one of these meetings and you couldn’t spot the scapegoat – it was you.  I might have been cynical in my youth, but I wasn’t inaccurate.

Most of the time, the real crime was that someone got caught holding the hot potato.  All the processes were broken.  Everyone was over their head, just trying to keep moving forward.  The trick was to keep the stuff off your desk and onto someone else’s.   Late with your review?  Find an error and send it back.  Problem with the result?  Check the spec and justify what you did.   Late with a deliverable?  Find what you didn’t get on time.

And when we screwed up – which was inevitable.  We didn’t look for the real root cause.  Instead, we’d put on another layer of checking.

Man, I hated that.

But I almost did it myself.  That would be a crime.

We advertise ourselves as a different type of company.  We aren’t going to be constrained by the old models of behaviour.  But if you let your guard down for a second, the old behaviours creep in.    The reality is that many of us learned to manage badly in the old “command and control” structures.   The pointed haired boss from Dilbert is only funny because we’ve all had one – or more than one.   For some – it’s all they’ve known.

I’ve been fortunate.  I’ve had some great bosses who taught me that it didn’t have to be that way.  I’ve had a consulting career that has exposed me to different thinking.  And I teach – therefore I learn.

Yet even I get caught in behaviours that I don’t like or even believe in.  Why?  One reason is that while we have established that the past behaviours don’t work, we haven’t really established a new school of management that is relevant to the real world.  Yes, I’ve seen Dan Pink on Motivation.  I’ve read Jim Collins on strategy.  I’ve immersed myself in Porter and Drucker.  I’ve read – and loved the work of Roger Martin.  And more.

I understand the problem.  I know what the ideal theory is.  I know what a perfect world should be like.   The only problem I have is that the “wicked problems” of business today don’t play by the rules.

I thought I was busy and under pressure in my early career.  I thought we were lean and mean.  I don’t think I saw anything like the pace of business in today’s world.  I don’t think we had half the pressure of the modern workplace.  I don’t need idealism – I need practical wisdom.

The light went on for me.  I’ve gotten off track.  I’ve started to make the old mistakes.  I need to manage outcomes, not inputs.  I need to bring back real accountability.    Everyone needs to be focused on the outcome of the process and not their own part of the process.  If we all do our job right and the outcome is wrong – we all haven’t done our job right.

The trick is, I know this.  I also know what it takes.  It’s not just about process or procedure.  It takes a disciplined approach to defining outcomes that are clear, understandable to all and – above all – measurable.  It takes a relentless pursuit of a process that is reverse engineered from the outcomes that it serves — and one that is constantly reviewed and understood by all.  And it takes a team approach where handoffs are based on helping the next person succeed and not in leaving them holding the hot potato.

The problem?  It’s damned difficult.  As the old saying goes, “when you are up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to think about draining the swamp.”   True.  But if you don’t drain the swamp, as soon as you get rid of one alligator, another appears.   But I guess it feels better to shoot an alligator than to look at the enormity of the task.

When you are busy, when you are overwhelmed, it’s so easy to just go back to the old ways.  Inspect. Fix. Punish.  Kill an alligator.

I know the traps.  I know better.  I know the old ways don’t work.

I also know what has to be done.  And it’s a lot of work.  I use the term “relentless” as an adjective quite purposely.  You have to be relentless.  You have to keep driving at outcomes and not merely inputs.  You have to keep faith that doing the right things is the right thing to do – especially when you get overloaded or overwhelmed.

It is about faith.  David Maister, the guru of consulting said, “The old testament prophets didn’t pray for one more commandment.  They prayed for the strength to do the existing ten.”   How similar this is to our modern world.  We don’t need a new set of tools.  We don’t need a new self-help book.   There is no silver bullet.  There’s just faith in what we know is right, the wisdom to do it and the relentless focus to keep picking ourselves up and putting ourselves back on the right track.

That’s what I’ll be doing Monday morning.  For the rest of the day?   When the going gets tough  –  tough go shopping.  Groceries, dinner with my beautiful wife and back at it on Monday.

By then, the potato will have cooled.  So will I.

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Filed under Change, Leadership, Organizational Change, People, Process

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