Have you ever thought about how a hot air balloon works? The principle is really quite simple. When you want to ascend you heat the air up in the balloon. When you want to descend you cool the air in the balloon. When floating along if you don’t reheat the air in the balloon on occasion you’re going to descend. There is no choice in this matter.
Now imagine you’ve gone for a ride and the pilot took you very high into the sky. The world is beautiful from this vantage point. As you’re floating along a problem develops in the burners which heat up the air in the balloon. The balloon starts to descend.
What would you want your pilot to do?
One option for your pilot is to paint a rosy picture and limit his actions as not to alarm any passengers. This could provide a sense of comfort for a short period of time but what remains constant is your descent towards those shark infested waters below.
Another option for your pilot is to be truthful and transparent with you. Tell you there’s a serious problem with the burners and you’re descending. He may even ask for your help by throwing away excess weight such as that suitcase full of fancy clothes you brought to slow the descent and buy him more time to solve the problem. He may also take deliberate action to correct the burner problem which shows how serious the situation is but is more likely to get them working again.
Which pilot would you rather be flying with?
How leaders respond to the descent
I’ve seen this metaphor play out in many of the companies I’ve worked with:
- Going to great lengths word smithing status reports to explain why the empirical data presented really isn’t telling a bad story or how a miracle will emerge
- Reworking project schedules to find ways to make the lines in the Gantt chart give the answer you want it to (even though there’s no humane way to make it happen)
- Explaining how some other group in the company is slowing the team down and as soon as the other group finishes their work your team will be able to get their work done (I call this playing “schedule chicken”)
- Dismissing the message when empirical data is showing clearly the project is in significant trouble with little hope of delivering on time
- Not wanting to turn the project yellow or red despite the desperate need for management attention
Do you ever feel like you’re just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
I’m always amazed by how much organizations invest in such actions each year. Given all the companies just in North America I can only imagine the millions if not billions of dollars put into re-arranging deck chairs annually. What if we could take these millions and billions of dollars and put them to use to do something valuable? I’m not saying get rid of status reporting, but what if we simply provided the empirical data as-is and accept the message it’s providing?
To not be at choice with Responsibility means you might be blaming another group or justifying why things are the way they are. Either way you would be pointing to some external cause and leaving yourself feeling powerless to deal with what is true.
You could simply acknowledge you and your team struggle to deliver, or mandate overtime to just tough it out and get it done. In either case you’re now shifting the cause internally and the result you will continue to struggle with what is there.
Then there’s always the option to just to live in a mental state of denial. After all it’s easier to just shrug it off rather than trying to deal with the tough questions.
Responsible Leadership is a matter of choice. The path to Responsibility is not an easy path to follow as you need to see and confront yourself as being in the mental states of denial, blaming, justifying, shame and obligation. However, when you approach your actions from a mental state of responsibility it means you will be more likely to confront what is real and set in motion a plan for real resolutions.
Regardless of where you work or the challenges you have perhaps it’s time to stop re-arranging the deck chairs.
It doesn’t have to be this way