United We Fail?

By now I'm sure you've read and been appalled by the story currently destroying United Airline's reputation. An overbooked flight, not enough passengers accept a $400 voucher--eventually raised to $1000, and the next thing you know a passenger already seated is forcibly removed from the plane. And of course in this day and age, several passengers take pictures and post the dreadful details. I just read an article by an airline pilot explaining what he thinks happened. (He also reports an overlooked fact--the flight in question was being operated by United Express--a contractor--and not United Airlines itself.) He makes this particularly astute observation.

What I sense is that the airline’s staff reached a point, after perhaps offering whatever dollar amounts their procedures called for, where they simply didn’t know what to do, and nobody was brave enough, or resourceful enough, to come up with something. Summoning the police simply became the easiest way to pass the buck.

Aha! There's more than one "EN" infecting employees in large organizations right now. We hear all the time about ENGAGEMENT, which hasn't improved at all in recent years. But EMPOWERMENT is engagement's kissing cousin. The pilot goes on to say:

...Airline culture is often such that thinking creatively, and devising a proverbial outside-the-box solution, is almost actively discouraged. Everything is very rote and procedural, and employees are often so afraid of being reprimanded for making a bad decision (not to mention pressed for time) that they don’t make a decision at all, or will gladly hand the matter to somebody else who can take responsibility. By and large, workers are deterred from thinking creatively exactly when they need to.

Doing things by rote is not without its benefits for high risk, high performance organizations. Such organizations--airlines, hospitals, the military come to mind--engage in important tasks that must be done with Six Sigma levels of reliability. Substandard performance doesn't just affect the bottom line; it entails significant risk for the organization and, more importantly, for others! As someone who flies 100k miles per year, I applaud the safety standards of the airline industry. But the downside of the "checklist" approach to organizational excellence is that it blinds everyone to the exceptional situation that must be handled in a better and non-rote way.

Of course, this is when those pesky Rebels in the workplace can come in handy. Perhaps there was an employee at the gate who had a better idea. But my guess is he didn't know how to speak up. Perhaps she was low in the pecking order, a new employee? Maybe past suggestions had been ignored? Or just maybe the go-along-to-get-along culture was so strong that no second thoughts entered anyone's mind. In some ways that's even worse. The employees were so unengaged and so unempowered that they had stopped thinking.

And isn't that the worst risk ANY ORGANIZATION can run? When EVERYONE is on the SAME PAGE, no one is available to turn it. The most important checklist any high risk, high performance organization can develop is the one that helps employees know when they must abandon Standard Operating Procedures. You can't leave this up to the personal courage of the employee; it's something that teams need to talk about and leaders need to facilitate. Together...or united they will fail.

Are you solving the right problem?

It’s discouraging and frustrating to work tirelessly on solving what you think is an important issue and nothing happens. Despite brilliant thinking, smart teammates, and innovative solutions, the organization never fully embraces the new approach.

There are a lot of reasons why good ideas never get adopted. Sometimes they’re not critical to the organization’s goals, require too many resources, or scare the managerial keepers of the status quo.

But there’s another reason that’s rarely acknowledged: we’re trying to solve the wrong problem.

Defaulting to tactical fixes: a sad, but true story

More specifically, we go after creating tactical solutions – new systems, processes, behavioral ways to do the work – when the real problem is an underlying belief or mindset issue.

It’s the old iceberg model: we try to fix the 10% of work that’s visible instead of addressing the invisible issues under the surface.

Let me share a story to illustrate.

A few years ago an executive of a large, global company told me that the company’s marketing and communications organizations weren’t collaborating. Hundreds of people seemed to either being doing slightly redundant work or certainly not working as efficiently or creatively as they could be.

The siloes did their annual plans every year and sent them up through their hierarchies to the president, who clearly saw overlaps and missed opportunities.

I was asked to help the two organizations break down their organizational barriers. The immediate goal: develop one integrated plan for the coming fiscal year.

We used Art of Hosting and The Circle Way techniques to identify shared purpose, establish common goals, and have conversations in new ways so that everyone was heard. We created simplified, shared planning templates. There were raucous, collaborative sessions where people worked intently and with good intentions. The thinking was smart; the output was strategic and creative. Great relationships were formed.

But after that one planning cycle, people slid back into their own silos where marketing and communications each did their thing, apart from the “governance” committee meetings that were in reality lipstick on the collaboration pig.

While people gained a new appreciation of one another and the diverse roles in each organization, the goal to create new processes and open communication was a dud.

Uncovering the real problem

After 18 months I was called in to facilitate a session with just four executives – two from marketing and two from communications to figure out “how to fix this collaboration problem.”

Sensing that there was a deeper underlying issue, I led the executives through creating an Immunity to Change map to see if there were assumptions and beliefs holding people back from achieving their goal of working together.

Immunity to Change, developed by Harvard School of Education professors Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey, is a diagnostic tool that pinpoints individual beliefs and organizational mindsets that make us immune to seeing what’s really stopping us from achieving our most important goals.  Just as our body becomes immune to disease, our mind can become resistant to certain types of change.

By making these immunities visible you begin to see root causes -- and can then focus on solving the right problems.

What was revealed among the corporate executives: the marketing people believed that they and their staffs were much smarter than the communications teams.

That’s why marketing didn’t want to collaborate. They felt they were the strategic, creative minds and the communications people were tactical and lacking in an understanding of the business issues.

It was a painful session and oddly freeing. Now the real work could begin.

Be a problem identifier vs. just a problem solver

One of the most valuable things Rebels at Work can do for our organizations is to identify the real problems.

While problem solving is valuable, problem identification is foundational.

And one of the most valuable things we can do for ourselves is to identify what might be holding us back from being confident, effective Rebels. Motivation is valuable. Clearing away beliefs that limit our influence is bliss.

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For more information on Immunity to Change, go to Minds at Work, the consulting firm founded by Drs. Kagan and Lahey  or read the book, which explains the research on resistance to change, how to create an immunity map, and how individuals and organizations have used the process to unlock what’s holding them back from making important changes.

If anyone is interested in participating in a special Immunity to Change training for Rebels at Work, send Lois an email: Lois@RebelsatWork.com.  If we can get enough people, we’ll make it happen.