Friday, June 11, 2010

Don't Make the Tail Wage The Dog

When animals misbehave, most owners blame the animal. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Animal training is really about training the owners, not the animals. Seriously. Ever see a really good trainer meet with an unruly dog for the first time? She can take command and get the dog to do whatever she wants almost instantly.

Sure, breeding is a factor, but aside from that, a well-trained owner can get a dog to do its bidding, just as a dog can manipulate and have its way with an untrained owner who doesn’t “get it.”

Well, get this: management is no different. Employee problems are almost always management problems. In fact, most organizational, business, product, even technology problems are actually management problems. That means that, not only is it up to management to solve them, but in most cases, management caused them to begin with.
Here’s a great example about a company that had what it thought was a unique problem.

It had developed a proprietary technology that had great performance, but was expensive and difficult to implement. As a result, customers largely opted for an alternative technology that was cheaper, easier to use, and offered by a number of competitors.

Well, the division that offered this proprietary technology developed a “bunker” mentality, meaning the pervasive view of its management and employees was that the alternative technology, as well as the customers that chose it, were “the enemy.” Morale in this division was terrible.

Surprisingly, the company had the ability to offer the alternative technology, but because it was viewed as “the enemy,” that was out of the question.

Instead, the company chose to develop new proprietary technology that was cheaper and easier to use. But, in order to keep the bad morale of the “bunker” division and the negative customer perception of its technology out of the picture, the company used a separate division to develop and market the new technology.

To the company’s leadership, this made sense at the time. But in reality, the configuration was dysfunctional and perpetuated bad morale and negative customer perception. In a sense, the company’s leadership allowed the bunker mentality to dictate how it organized and went to market.

The solution was to merge everything into one business division that offered three alternative solutions to customers: the “bunker” technology, the “alternative” technology, and the “new” technology. The company marketed this as a one-stop-shop where customers could choose what they wanted. In time, the bunker mentality, bad morale, and negative customer perception vanished.

Anyone who owns or trains dogs will immediately see the parallel. The bunker division was like a dog acting out because it felt threatened when its owners introduced a new dog and perhaps gave it more attention and food. But the same dogs can live happily in exactly the same environment if they’re not pitted against each other and don’t view their owner’s affections and food, for that matter, as a zero-sum game.

The same parallels exist in parenting, as well.

The point is that most problems within companies are actually management problems. But, like poorly trained dog owners, managers blame the dog. Unfortunately, the dog can’t solve the problem and, ironically, didn’t even cause the problem to begin with.

The message for managers at every level is simple: take responsibility for problems and get trained to solve them. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up with the tail wagging the dog.

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