A successful operation is the interplay of thousands of variables. If only we could find which variables could assure success, then our decisions as managers would be clear. This is what authors of popular business books, such as Built to Last and In Search of Excellence, set out to do. By interviewing successful companies and then finding attributes they all had in common, the authors posited that because these companies shared traits, the traits, therefore, must cause success. In reality, it is impossible to say which variable is causing which outcome.
This is why the scientific method demands control groups, studying one variable at a time and assuring studies are blind. Without the ability to do this, the next best proof of a theory is the test of time. It happens that the companies studied in these books have suffered since their halcyon reviews. Attributes once thought the province of only the successful were merely proximate, probably not exclusive and evidently not causative. As with other areas of scientific study, the more certain and immediate proof of what causes an outcome is found during autopsies or when the game is over.
Only then have all the variables ceased to bounce around. Only then can the trail from a certain outcome, i.e., demise, to its cause be followed without noise and distraction. Failure, it turns out, delivers superior wisdom when it comes to knowing what a truly driving variable is. The single cause of failure- across time, disciplines and entities - is disconnection. A disconnect occurs when a resource, person, awareness, or process upon which another component in the system relies becomes misaligned or totally unavailable.
The mantra for managers is unequivocal: Find the actual and on-the- verge-of- actual disconnects and fix them. But chances are you won't. That's because managers are so often stuck down in the weeds. While this reason is simple, getting free from the weeds is not. Weeds are beguiling, like the Sirens of Greek mythology who caused sailors to crash into the rocky shores. Managers don’t even know they are in the weeds often until it is too late. The precursor to managing truly relevant aspects of business, then, depends first on the ability to identify the weeds in your professional life. Here they are:
1. DOING THE WORK
It happens: substantive processes break down. It is preferable to have back-up for these occasions rather than having the wheels of progress shut down. And so it is not unusual to have managers jump in to save the day. The problem with this is that if these interventions are rewarded or deemed heroic, a habit of doing is reinforced, never giving opportunity to find the disconnects.
2. TIME MANAGEMENT
Since processes are wont to break, time has to be set aside for that potentiality. But, even with procedural break downs cured, organizations themselves may unwittingly undermine the necessity to do higher level thinking. In a world gauged by outputs, profits and immediacy, systems to motivate employees are similarly geared. While that system may be appropriate for staff directly responsible for production, it is not necessarily the right fit for managers. As a consequence, time gets diverted away from contemplative and analytical time allocations.
3. NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM
Even if there were ample time and little distraction, figuring out the most important thing on which to focus is anxiety provoking. It's like staring at a blank slate. Without external prompts, managers have to rely on other modes of analysis and creativity. These fall into the realm of soft skills, for which there is little indicia of progress early on. This can leave managers filled with doubt, feeling like they are floating in a vacuum. It feels far more comfortable to fill the space, even if those tasks are ministerial in nature and could be performed by someone else.
In childhood development circles, experts say that one of the most important things you can provide for a child is sense of stability brought about through familiar routine. There is a neuroscientific basis for this. The startle response or orienting response to any change in our environment is a biological evolutionary function that let our ancestors know that a predator was in their midst. Adrenalin pumps and blood rushes to the larger muscles of the limbs so that they could easily get away from the threat.
In a modern workplace, this autonomic response to change is not only unpleasant, but counter- productive to tasks that demand thinking. And so, we are programmed to keep structure and surroundings exactly the same as they were the day before. Our very own human systems make it unnatural to go out of our way to find hidden disconnects.
5. INVISIBLE GORILLA
In their book, The Invisible Gorilla, authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explore inattention blindness. The title refers to a social experiment in which participants were tasked with counting the number of times people in a video passed a ball to one another. At the end of the video, participants were asked if they noticed the gorilla. In the middle of these ball-tossing people stood someone dressed in a gorilla suit. Yet, participants failed to see it because they were so intent on counting the number of passes.
You can see a PSA produced by Transport for London that is based on this experiment by clicking here. You can also see how easy it is for managers to not see disconnects even when they are in plain sight.
University systems favor specialization, especially when it comes to business. We “major” in finance or marketing or human resources. The effect showed up in an informal study I conducted. When people who worked in or owned a business were asked, “what is the most important thing when it comes to building a successful business?” the answers were diverse.
But, they correlated to the answerer’s discipline. Marketers thought marketing was important. Human resource experts thought people were the most important drivers of success. And finance people thought managing finances made all the difference. Whether education creates or merely reinforces a predisposition, it plays a role in fortifying what psychologists call My Side Bias. This, like any other “weed”, precludes seeing a bigger picture.
7. NEVER TOLD WHAT TO DO
If we conquered our anxieties and biases, unhooked from distractions, and committed the time and attention to become Sherlockian in our quest to find the disconnects, we would not know what to do.That’s because no one ever told us.