How many times have you heard a leader say these words: “Surely, the person behind this mess will have to pay”; or if you are a leader yourself, you could have at some time uttered the words: “Some heads must roll”. My fellow colleagues who are in mainstream journalism will often put out a headline Heads to roll at …” followed by the name of the troubled organisation.
Systems Think Sam Hlabati
There are definitely systemic implications of resorting to “rolling heads” every time something goes wrong in an organisation. You may be aware of public enterprises in our country where members of the governing boards are appointed and fired in such quick succession that they are out before they can even learn to spell the name of the organisation on whose board they sit on.
New boards are constituted and appointed only to be fired before they have had a chance to produce one report on their view of the organisation’s status quo, let alone map a strategic journey. It is Albert Einstein who once said it is the quintessence of insanity to continue doing the same thing over and over again and eagerly expect different results. One wonders why then do the authorities in charge of these public entities continue recycling governing boards without getting the desired results, or is it their way of leadership to perpetuate blame shifting as time passes.
The same “blame-passing-thinking” seems prevalent in the corporate world. Let me be frank from the beginning, I am not exonerating or being an apologist for the people who mess up in the day-to-day goings-on in an organisation.
Let me encourage leaders to look at the organisation as a self-propelled motorised vehicle, in simpler and common language a vehicle. You most probably have had an occasion to drive a vehicle. Let me further assume that at some unfortunate time the vehicle that you had to drive failed to perform as required or worse still failed to perform at all.
In the circumstance of a vehicle breakdown, the first thought that comes to one’s head is trying to understand what is wrong with the vehicle. The first reaction for the male folk in general would be to open the bonnet and check for problems. I am endowed with human capital leadership knowledge and have very little of the technical domain knowledge. I bet that most people who drive vehicles are as useless at mechanics as I could be on any given day, if not worse. Despite my limited knowledge, I would still open the bonnet in the event of my vehicle breaking down.
Drivers would agree that the problem that would have stopped the vehicle could have just been a battery terminal that might not have been tightened and would have disconnected due to a bumpy ride on some potholes with a road (or is it a road with potholes — it is difficult to not believe the former being the state rather that the later). Instead of sleeping in the vehicle on an eerie roadside, one could get the vehicle back in motion again by tightening a battery terminal.
In the event of one opening the bonnet and looking clueless not knowing what to fix, the next thing would be to call a trained mechanic. The mechanic will tell the driver what needs to be fixed to get the system back to functionality. I am still to meet someone who says that a mechanic did not check what was wrong with the system, but rather came and started admonishing the driver apportioning them blame for the breakdown.
We can take the same thinking of the mechanic back into the organisation. The leader should exercise due care in examining the organisational systems when problems do occur. When a functional system fails, it may not necessarily be that someone is behind the mess; by being the causal element. When a system; comprising of procedures, policies and processes (Three Ps) fail, leaders should be prepared to find out what happened.
One of my cousins is a mechanic, he shared with me some wisdom of his trade when he said that at times the reason a vehicle breaks down is because of human error; such as riding the clutch in manual transmission vehicles. Be that as it may, the mechanic still has to fix the vehicle back to functionality.
It is a misleading notion to think that those in leadership do not make mistakes when designing the Three Ps of any part of the organisation. More often than not, these Three Ps are designed by leadership with little or no participation from those that are meant to use them, thus the “drivers” of the different activities.
The mechanic knows that the driver was not there when the vehicle was manufactured, and was nowhere near the training on maintaining and repairing the vehicle. That is precisely the reason a good mechanic is ordinarily non-judgmental when a vehicle breaks down.
A leadership approach that does not afford a shop floor worker in designing the Three Ps of the worker’s functional area creates the “driver-complicated vehicle” scenario. In instances such as that, the mechanic (herein by inference called the leader) should concentrate on fixing the system to which most probably only themselves are privy of its complexities and should be less judgmental, rather be more corrective about the performance of the driver (herein by inference called the team member).
Even when the shop floor employee was involved in the designing of the Three Ps, it should be borne in mind always that the complexities of running organisations are not always fully anticipated. One of my former leaders always said: “We will repair the ship as it sails”. The wisdom of those words is that leaders deal with the system and the people issues simultaneously, for the ship should not stop while one repairs it; the sailors will be trained on how to adjust to the prevailing conditions of the ship.
Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter handle: @samhlabati.