Fans of Sherlock Holmes might remember the occasional scene in which a scruffy urchin appears out of nowhere, speaks briefly to Holmes, and then disappears again. Holmes then solves the case, and explains to the stunned Watson that he cultivated the urchins as sources of information. They are his “Baker Street Irregulars.”
For those who prefer a more recent image, fans of James Bond movies will remember the endless parade of agents who show up long enough to give Bond some critical piece of information or equipment. Unlike Holmes’ informants, the mortality rate amongst Bond’s “irregulars” tends to be awkwardly high. Star Trek, of course, was famous for its “Red Shirts,” the red uniformed security officers who would always die within minutes after appearing on camera.
In all these cases, the character shows up on camera just long enough to move the plot forward and then disappears. In a very real sense, they have no existence before they are needed and no existence after their function is fulfilled. When they are present, they exist only to meet the needs of the story, or at least of the hero.
Of course, these examples are all fiction. What bearing could they possibly have on reality?
When I run predictive scenario management training exercises, a type of serious game, I find the same behavior manifests: many participants tend to assume that the other players in the scenario are only there to support their goals. They don’t quite recognize that each participant has their own goals and their own needs that they are trying to meet. As a result, conflict often erupts between different individuals and groups who each assumed that the other individuals and groups were present only as “red shirts.”
Now, it might be argued that I was still talking fiction there. After all, this was an exercise, not actual performance on the job. However, the way people behave in a predictive scenario is a fairly accurate prediction of how they will behave in the workplace.
Even outside the gaming scenario, I observe that kind of “off camera” behavior quite frequently in a variety of organizations. It occurs when each department treats the others as existing only to fulfill their needs. Each group becomes completely occupied with doing its own job.
This may seem like a good thing, as they aren’t being distracted by anything else. Unfortunately, they are also not considering how their actions might impact other departments or the company as a whole.
In one company, the engineering department so focused on itself that it never considered how its insular approach to the job was making it impossible for the tech writers to produce accurate documentation, or for customer service to provide useful assistance to the increasingly irate customers. At another company, attempts to identify the root causes of problems in the production process were frequently ignored by one department whose manager simply couldn’t see why she was constantly being bothered when she was clearly busy and, moreover, doing her job.
In each of these cases, the environment was intense and the pressure to work rapidly was extremely high. Unfortunately, such constant pressure leads to narrow perspectives and a decreased willingness to work with others. Although the pressure appears to be increasing performance, it does so at the cost of also increasing friction: in other words, increasing the performance of a single group decreases how well different groups work together. Instead of operating as a unified, coherent team, each company was functioning as a collection of uncoordinated groups all moving in generally the same direction. The lack of coordination led to a significant waste of time and energy and a significant increase in failure work.
Teams succeed because the members work together smoothly and well, maximizing resources and time — not by having each member duplicate the work of the rest, or treat the others as bit players who only matter when they are on camera.
The key to preventing your organization from turning into a collection of Baker Street Irregulars is twofold:
First, you need to make sure that each department and each person understands the big picture. What is the flow of information and production in your company? What does success mean, not just individually but for the company as a whole? While people do not need to know how to do one another’s jobs (nor is that necessarily a feasible objective), they do need to understand how those other jobs fit into that big picture. They need to understand how their actions and decisions affect other people, other departments, and the company as a whole. If you can’t convey that information, you will also find it extremely difficult to convince your employees to take pride in their work or in the company. People who don’t feel pride in their work or the company are also less likely to work hard, and are more likely to leave.
People also need to understand that when something goes wrong, it isn’t about fixing blame; rather, it’s about fixing the problem. What are the feedback mechanisms within the company? How are failure points identified and corrected?
Second, you need to slow down. It doesn’t help to move fast if that means errors are increasing faster than useful productivity. Coordinating different teams in a company doesn’t happen over night. Creating a loosely coupled organization — in which the different groups are cognizant of one another’s goals, and understand how to help one another — is a process. It pays to start slow, and build up speed as you go. If you start running into problems, you slow down again until things are working. Then you identify what went wrong, strengthen the weak areas, and build up speed again.
Know where you’re going. Help each person and each team know how they fit in. Start slowly. You’ll be amazed at how fast you end up going.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com.