Comfortably Numb II

Nov 11, 2010

In yesterday’s post we saw how most organizations – large and small – begin to decline, and eventually fail, because of creeping numbness – numbness to customers, change, and/or feedback.We also saw that the growth of creeping numbness is usually so slow (relatively speaking) that it happens without senior management being aware of it, or failing to see the extent of the problem, until – too late – the numbness reaches the C-suite. At which point, game over.

Incidentally, contrary to an enormous amount of literature to the contrary, with one exception I have never seen numbness start in the C-suite and radiate out through the organization. Stupidity, perhaps, sometimes hubris, and certainly bravado – equally dangerous – but never creeping numbness. Creeping numbness always flows from the bottom up, from day to day operations toward management and leadership. Why? The reason why would be – will be – a blog post – at least – in itself.

The one frequent exception is when a numb but rich company takes over another more agile, non-numb business in an attempt to revitalize itself. In this case, you might as well take the vibrant young organization to the vet and have it injected with numb. It’s only a matter of time before the vampire, acquiring BigNumbInc, wraps its swirly black cloak around the management of the acquiree, LittleNonNumbCo…and then…well…you’ve seen that movie, no doubt.)

So, how can senior management protect their organization against creeping numbness? Here’s the simplest way to prevent it, one which is very rarely implemented:

Real job swaps

Numbness starts at the front lines with the introduction of unnecessary, over-complicated or unduly onerous practices. They might not, at first, be official policies – just over-wrought ways of doing things that are inflexible and unresponsive: a stupid amount of hoop-jumping to get a refund; only Jennie can schedule a service visit and she’s not here today; that product is one of our ‘legacy’ items and this store doesn’t handle those. Your mileage will vary depending on your industry, but I’m sure you’ve experienced your share of being at the wrong end of numb practices.

Left to the usual chronology, you’d need a time-lapse camera to see how from this simple beginning, creeping numbness multiplies and spreads over time to slowly envelop more and more of the organization. But it’s here where it always starts – at the very front line of your organization’s interaction with its clients and customers.

The problem is, if senior management waits until the spread of creeping numbness brings it to the boardroom or the corner office on the executive floor, as we’ve seen, by then it’s too late. By that time, the organization is amongst the walking dead.

Instead, senior management has to get ahead of creeping numbness – anticipate it, rather than reacting to it, by going to where creeping numbness actually takes root (the front lines) and check for it – regularly and consistently. Like a gardener or farmer checking for disease, there’s no substitute for actually going and looking at the plants and crops directly and testing the soil.

This means real job swaps – real time spent by senior management on the front line – doing a real job for a material period of time. Not one of those half-day ‘pretend’ job swaps where the CEO spreads some pepperoni on a pizza or two, wearing a shiny bright apron over his meticulous striped suit – those may do something for employee morale or PR purposes (though it’s doubtful) but they certainly don’t do anything for finding and eradicating creeping numbness.

No, we’re talking about senior management regularly and consistently making real time – 4 to 10 days a year, depending on the complexity of the work – working at the front line with real customers and clients to find stuff out, to listen, to watch, to learn – not to pose for show, or to handle carefully vetted set-up interactions.

Have your senior management team do this (each in their own functional area, working with external or internal customers as appropriate) and whether your senior management team is one person (you), or one thousand, you will safely inoculate your business against creeping numbness.

Final point: If real job swaps are so effective, why do more organizations not use them? From what I see, because of a combination of (1) not seeing the need (who thinks their organization is getting numb?); (2) other seemingly more important priorities, and (3) well, it’s boring, maybe a little demeaning, and sure as heck not what I signed on to do when I became an SVP. Go figure.