Whack a Mole anyone?
Most of us have been there; whacking one problem on the head only to find that two more pop up while we’re not looking. By the time we’ve got them sorted, the original one mysteriously reappears. So what do we do?
We’re managers after all. We’re paid to get things sorted and people expect us to act quickly. So we carry on as usual. Then at some point we notice that our moles seem to be breeding. Mole whacking suddenly becomes senior management’s top priority. We set mole whacking targets and introduce ‘Whacker of the Month’ awards.
In the background meanwhile, our costs rise, our customers leave and our best staff drift away in search of sanity. So what might be going wrong?
The most likely explanation is that these energy and resource-sapping moles aren’t the cause of our problems after all. They are recurring symptoms of deeper systemic failures that need to be addressed if our organisation is to prosper, let alone survive.
Identifying and correcting systemic failures requires an understanding of systems. It calls for a good grasp of systems thinking and how to apply it within organisations.. For leaders and managers this means understanding the behaviour of complex adaptive systems, which all organisations ultimately are.
In our experience, such understanding is extremely rare amongst UK managers and many of the people who advise them. Without it, they’ll continue to waste time and money on things that don’t matter. Worse still, they risk causing further damage by tinkering with systems they don’t fully understand.
On a whack-a-mole arcade machine, for example, we can easily disable a pesky mole by putting a brick over the hole it lives in. But we shouldn't be surprised when, over time, other moles start behaving erratically then the machine eventually seizes up.
We'll be writing more about systems thinking and how to use it in later posts.
Meanwhile, try adopting one of the systems thinker’s favourite mantras:
“Don’t just do something, stand there! ”
Stand at the coal face and Look, Listen, Ask. Your aim is to understand what’s happening and why it’s happening.
Assume nothing. Ask childlike questions. Don’t meddle. If problems arise while you’re there, let those doing the job deal with them and watch how they do it. That’s part of your learning.
Repeat the exercise as often as you can. You will learn something new every time, and you will gather knowledge about what actually happens at the sharp end (rather than what you think happens or should happen).
You will undoubtedly still have moles to whack while you’re learning how to eradicate them. If possible, delegate as much whacking as you can while monitoring what’s going on. Don’t focus on individual ‘mallet events’, look for patterns of events then ponder what might be causing them.