In the movie City Slickers, cowboy Jack Palance is riding with Billy Crystal who’s slowly shrugging off a midlife crisis. He asks if Crystal knows what the secret of life is. ‘No, what?’ The old-timer raises his index finger and, pausing for dramatic effect, says, ‘One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.’
‘That’s great,’ says Crystal. ‘But what’s the one thing?’
Palance’s reply is classic. ‘That’s what you’ve got to figure out.’
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine an organisation about to embark on a major transformation. They’ve done exceptionally well in breaking away from their iconic parent. Liberated from ancient bureaucratic processes, they’ve gone helter-skelter for growth and profits. Their mantras are ‘agile’, ‘can do’ and ‘one team’. They believe in the idea of self-directed teams and celebrate their structure which is much flatter than their parent organisation, although processes are not so much engineered as strung together in a frenzy of ‘fit to ship’.
Until recently, with everyone in the same building, people knew the ‘go to’ person for whatever they needed and the culture spurned anyone who got too hung up on the faintly old-fashioned notions of ‘standard operating procedures’ and documented ways of working. ‘We’re lean,’ they would tell themselves. ‘Low cost, high velocity, max energy.’ The board was delighted, the employees felt empowered and the shareholders raked in the dividends. Everyone thought the carnival would go on forever.
No one can quite put their finger on when things started to change, but people are starting to talk about the boiling frog. You know the story? The frog is placed in a container of tepid water, from which it could easily leap out. But it doesn’t, because the temperature is raised so gradually it never receives the danger signal. Eventually the frog boils to death. In our thought experiment, agile starts to become fragile, ‘can do’ becomes ‘make do’, and ‘one team’ becomes every man for himself. There’s some soul searching. Are they failing to see the disruptors to their business model? ‘Digital is changing everything,’ they admit, ‘but we’re not like camera film or videotapes.’ Even as they assess the risk of being disrupted, they appreciate the irony of having been the disruptors themselves.
Things change when you grow up. Your business might be a startup bootstrapped from the proverbial garage, or a venture spun off from a large parent company. I consult to large organisations so tend to see the latter type. Let’s say the spin-off has ballooned to include hundreds of initiatives. Something in there could work. But is the program coherent? Are the projects prioritised and capable of delivering value? Establishing a Project Management Office (PMO) to bring all the random initiatives together under one banner is necessary but not sufficient. Trying to bring order to such chaos can be like lowering a pinball arcade into the dodgem cars. Earnest project managers are pressing the flippers, keeping score on the brightly illuminated display, fighting furiously to prevent the silver ball from dropping between the flipper gap and then…“TILT!” Game over, as one of the dodgems careens into the machine’s side. Ding! Ding! Does this ring any bells for you?
“If we are held accountable for delivery of an outcome, we should have authority over the resources required to deliver it.”
How do we get ourselves into such a mess? And what can be done about it? Most people would agree that everyone has the right to be well managed, to understand the context of the work they’re performing, to be aligned to the organisation’s purpose and be congruent with its values. It fits our idea of natural justice that, if we are held accountable for delivery of an outcome, we should have authority over the resources required to deliver it. We are a country which prides itself on the idea of the ‘fair go’, and would thus have no worries about ensuring that what is being called for is reasonable and possible—in terms of capability, capacity and timeline.
But, our operating system lets us down. We understand the parts, but rarely acknowledge how useless those parts are when not connected to the whole. We think in silos, measuring and optimising for local efficiencies in the vain hope that the sum of the parts will deliver what’s best for the whole. For the most part, the principles underlying our project and production methodologies haven’t fundamentally changed since the industrial revolution. We tend to see and treat people as pieces of the machine, there to manage the algorithms and suppress individualistic, creative inclinations. We use technology to command and control and rarely see its power harnessed to enable and empower.
How to change?
Stop and be. That’s the first step. Tune in to the madness around you and accept that most of what you think of as being urgent is unimportant, and most of what is important is being neglected. You need the quiet space to mindfully create the conditions in which you are ready to rewrite the program of how you go about planning and performing your work. Like all the great performers—whether athletes, dancers, musicians, actors or warriors—you must come to find that deeply calm place at the centre of your being. It’s the wellspring of the self-control you’ll need to call a halt to the chaos and provide the mental capacity for learning, for education, for the acquisition of practical wisdom.
What is work? Is it not the process of turning intention into reality? Projecting the vision of your desired future state—then going after it? And if that is the case, does it not beg the question: ‘What is your intention?’ To be effective in your workplace—the place you turn up to most days of your life—you need to know the answer to that question. If you are endowed with the virtue of courage, and can couple this to an aspiration to bring a better world into being through your capacity to do meaningful work, why would you not explore a better way to serve your intention when such a better way exists? Does it make sense to run your life and those of your team like the dodgem cars mentioned earlier? Are you happy to eke out a small life victory at the price of a constant grinding out of each daily battle? Why would you continue writing your life in machine code when a whole new programming language can give you a user experience that will inspire you and those you lead to be the best you can be?
“Most of what you think of as being urgent is unimportant,
and most of what is important is being neglected.”
We all love to hear the stories about the winners. But for every Apple, there are thousands of failures. A venture capitalist knows she’s doing well if one in ten of her investments delivers the bright shiny promise on the box. We bury our failures and move at pace to the next shiny thing. And if you are experiencing the kind of turmoil of our thought experiment, how would you answer Jack Palance’s question? What one thing could you do that could turn things around?
If you know me, you’ll know my answer. Effective work management. The ticket to entry is not inexpensive—but then neither is anything of real value. You’ll need to familiarise yourself with the Theory of Constraints, Critical Chain Project Management, Drum Buffer Rope production management, the central limit theorem, covariance, quantitative work management, constraint accounting, the logical thinking process, adult learning, the principles of effective organisational design and then some. And you’ll need to invest in new software and in training yourself and your team how to use it. In short, you’re going to need to dig deep.
But, what’s the alternative? In the words of Henry David Thoreau, ‘the price of anything is the amount of life you pay for it’. How much life are you paying for the dodgem cars? Is the pinball arcade your idea of a life well lived?
The Theory of Constraints offers a new operating system fit for our complex world of change. To learn what that operating system might look like, we invite you to download our FREE Executive Guide to Critical Chain Project Management [PDF].
The change from standard thinking to Theory of Constraints (TOC) is both profound and exhilarating. To make it both fun and memorable, we use a business simulation we call The Right Stuff Workshop.
We’d love to run it with you. To learn more:
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