As leaders, we make hundreds of decisions a day. Some are minor and hold little significance, while others affect the direction of our entire organization. Luckily, most of us do a good job at identifying decisions by relative impact and respond accordingly. Nevertheless, danger lies in those decisions that seem simple, but holds the potential of cascading into a plethora of challenges or in the worst case, even the eventual demise of the organization.
Examples are as simple as not dealing with an unhappy customer, failing to listen to the concerns of a talented employee, or deciding to put off a key decision. What is easily overlooked is that these relatively simple decisions can lead to very negative outcomes on a scale much larger than what the decision-maker would assume possible. A simple analogy of how easy an initial decision transforms into something more complex comes from a child’s activity. Most of us have completed a “connect the dots” activity sheet where you start with a page of dots and end up with a group of lines that form a picture. In most cases, even before connecting the dots, most people can predict what the picture will be. That is the key to avoiding surprises in the future: start with the first line with an eye for the outcome.
On a regular basis, I interact with leaders that know something is wrong in their organization, but seem to be unable to identify the root cause of the issue. We know that identifying a problem, its sources, and the solution are three different activities. “Connecting the dots” is central to overcoming the challenge of causality, thus reducing the threat of risk. Here are two examples of recent situations that I encountered that have led to bigger issues since the dots were not connected:
Most organizations invest heavily in technology as well as developing high performing teams. In an ever-increasing environment of multi-locational teams and dispersed resources, technology provides a wonderful tool for regular interaction. However, as the last three decades have taught us, technology for the sake of technology has limited value and technology cannot provide an adequate proxy for human interaction. Recently, I encountered an executive who wanted to demonstrate his staff’s ability to utilize technology. Although all of his core staff worked in the same building and sat with a few feet of each other, he proposed holding weekly staff meetings by video conference to demonstrate the technological sophistication of his team and the value of their tools. Literally, his staff sat in their offices, logged into the system, and communicated for an hour or more while being in the same 800 square feet space. While the decision to show technical competence seems logical in isolation, when the “dots are connected” there are a variety of negative outcomes in morale, culture, effectiveness, and productivity that arises from this decision. The leader placed another barrier between himself and his staff and instead of demonstrating innovation, reduced cohesion.
The slowing of the economy has altered the reward strategies of most organizations, regardless of industry or location. Although it might be assumed that employees would be most disappointed about the loss of regular monetary incentives, numerous studies show that small things matter most. I worked with a client that for more than 50 years gave a turkey to each employee for the thanksgiving holiday. An early snowstorm and the need to increase snow removal services led to an official deciding to cancel the turkeys to cover the additional cost requirement. It seemed like a simple decision that reduced a benefit worth less than 25 dollars per employee, while covering an immediate cash need. Employees not only complained about the loss of “their turkeys” the year of the change, but it remained an issue for years to come. The “lost turkeys” became synonymous with employer unfairness, symbolic of the poor relationship between employees and management, and one of the primary reasons given for the more than 30 percent level of turnover in the organization. It is doubtful that the poor morale and turnover could be completely explained by the removal of the turkey benefit. However, this simple decision was the tipping point that compromised the employee-employer relationship.
When you consider the pros and cons of a decision, remember to connect the dots.