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  • John R. Durant

A Company Culture Essential: Help Solve the Issues You Raise

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

Alerting management is important, but those who have the creativity, energy, skill, and determination to actually solve problems makes the culture stronger.

Problem-solving team
Collective accountability and responsibility require hard work

Great organizations identify problems and collectively hold each other accountable for solving them. Let me share an example.

Blowing the whistle is just the start

Years ago, a software developer in my organization stopped me as I was passing by and asked for a meeting so he could “raise a couple of issues.” I was new to the company and was familiarizing myself with people, process, products, and problems, so I enthusiastically agreed to meet. During our encounter the next day, he shared details about some disturbing security practices in the team. Accentuating his concerns about security was the fact that several key dependencies in our codebase were alarmingly out of date. He was definitely speaking for others when he expressed frustration that previous leaders had neither prioritized updating these dependencies nor addressed the lax security practices. While he spoke, his passion and his relief that he was being heard came through. As he concluded, he said, “Being that you are new here, I just thought these were things you should know.” With that, he stood up and prepared to leave. But before he reached the door, I asked, “Can we chat a little longer? I have some questions.”

In the conversation that followed, I asked for his opinion as to why these problems had not been previously resolved. I was curious about what other solutions might have been attempted and what may have been learned. Moreover, I asked him what ideas he and others have had for addressing these problems and what he believed the best course of action should be. He was smart and had some solid ideas, but he was surprised and even a little agitated by my questions. At one point he said, “I’m not sure why you’re asking me about how to change these things. I’m not a manager here, and I don’t have the mandate to make any of this happen. I really just wanted to meet with you and make sure you knew.” I then spent time helping him see that while I was grateful that he cared enough to make me aware, I really needed his help and leadership in effecting change. In time, he came to understand his responsibility in helping solve the problems he might bring forward, that “raising the issue,” while laudable and sometimes difficult, is usually the easier part of the long, hard journey of changing the thinking, practices, and processes of any organization.

Slogans and slides are not magic spells

Obviously, it’s essential to foster a culture of transparency and trust in your organization so that people feel empowered to share concerns and inform management of risks and other problems. But it is equally essential to instill the conviction that everyone’s collective success depends on not only bringing management’s attention to dysfunction and problems but also proposing and championing ideas to solve them. Since the advent of “lean thinking” and its emphasis on the culture and practice of identifying problems that compromise quality and flow, etc., smart organizations encourage employees to speak up and shine a light on problems they see. The stated core values of many companies are suffused with slogans about teamwork and constant improvement. But do those same organizations hold everyone accountable for solving the issues they raise and following through? Very often, there is an expectation that “management” will handle the most vexing problems and address the inconvenient truths through fiat and edict, as if the absence of an email from a VP boldly "laying down the law" has been the main obstacle to progress all along. Of course, managers and organizational leaders must provide clear direction and take a stand on issues that matter. They must speak up. But on their own, such declarative emails and PowerPoint slides, even from a CEO and no matter how persuasively composed, are not substitutes for the special knowledge, creativity, practical input, and hands-on labor required of those who are closest to the locus of problems.

"I told you so" and the blame-game

In their book, Leaders: Myth & Reality, Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone profile more than a dozen people in search of dispelling myths and more clearly identifying what made the figures of their study so effective. They make the point that leadership is "intensely behavioral" and that it is "more about being part of a feedback loop within a system than it is about being at the top of a command chain." When your culture reinforces a narrow "command chain" view of leadership, a common result is the mistaken belief that once people make someone "at the top" aware of a problem, the rank-and-file can sigh relief and get back to work. This unfortunately vacates their responsibility and accountability for digging in with peers and leaders to make change occur. Another downstream effect is an "I told you so" culture, where people raise issues in order to avoid blame when things inevitably go wrong down the road. In that scenario, when a crisis erupts, a person can safely evade negative consequences and even accrue an air of virtuosity by saying, "Well, I told them a year ago that it was a big problem, but apparently they didn't do anything about it."

And, this dysfunctional dynamic applies in the other direction, too. Organizational leaders can fall into the same bad habit of alerting managers and line-level employees to problems but not doing the work of empowering them to address the concerns. When the bitter fruit of failing to fix problems is finally harvested, executives and managers complain that "they [the teams] were warned but they let us down." Either way the game of blame is played, it emphasizes poor responsibility and accountability.

Drive accountability into your operating model

The solution is to put these attributes— responsibility and accountability— at the heart of your operating model. In this more enlightened scenario, there is no separate they or them upon whose shoulders anyone can conveniently lay responsibility or blame later on if things go awry. Meet with your team and create new rules of engagement. When is the last time you met with them and had as the topic of conversation, "What's our agreed upon protocol for handling issues that are raised?" Resist the temptation to fall for easy answers like, "We'll do it the lean way." And, do not settle for a litany of empty buzzwords that might be parodies in a Dilbert cartoon like, "When a problem is identified, we schedule a visibility meeting, get the team on the same page, right-size the issue, assign a change agent, and communicate the deliverables."

Once you agree on a set of rules that govern how you work together in solving problems, you'll also want to create transparency mechanisms so that everyone knows if the rules are being embraced and followed. Some organizations add data about issues raised and resolved to their normal productivity metrics, putting them front-and-center in dashboards that everyone sees as they walk through the factory, development center, or call center.

Every week it seems there’s a fresh tragedy in the news that reminds us of what happens when organizations become opaque, when people are afraid to speak up, or when they’ve lost confidence that raising concerns will cause any change. Nurturing a culture of accountability, openness, and responsible action is a sine qua non of great companies and teams. However, awareness is the starting line. It takes collective commitment and even courage sometimes in order to make change happen. No matter what role you play in the organization, you have the responsibility to not only raise issues but also propose ways to solve them and then participate the in hard work that follows. Leaders have a special duty to work with their managers and individual contributors to operationalize the collective commitment to raising issues and solving them together. Doing so fortifies the culture and makes it something people do and not something they merely say.


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