Peter de Jager is a provocative Speaker,
Writer and Consultant. His primary focus in on how we manage change,
technology and the future.
In addition to speaking at conferences
worldwide, he's also writen monthly columns for CIO Magazine and
His goal is always to question what we
think is so, and in so doing perhaps open up new opportunities.
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Solutions to pressing problems are nearly always a double edged sword. Regardless of the problem solved, the solution inevitably creates a new problem to replace the old. The new challenge is often more difficult to eradicate because it is subtler and often less noticeable in the short term.
In 1935, Australia imported Cane Toads in an attempt to control Frenchi and Greyback beetles which were attacking sugarcane crops. The Toad solution had limited success, and in exchange for their enforced deportation, a common Australian theme, the Cane Toads found a country free of natural predators. The result is a growing plague of Cane Toads sweeping across Australia.
By itself, a plague of toads is not unlike Australia’s plague of Rabbits, except that Cane Toads exude a poisonous venom. Generated by glands their backs, it is toxic enough to kill a variety of indigenous animals including dingos (native dogs), quolls (cat-sized marsupials), goannas (Australian monitor lizards), and crocodiles.
An attempt in 1990 to control this new pest with a Venezuelan virus, was aborted when it was found to also kill native frog species. As of this writing, the Cane Toads are winning.
For a more technological example of a solution generating a problem we need only open our email in the morning. Email is a great idea; allowing us to communicate faster and more cheaply than the traditional physical, paper, handwritten letter. Unfortunately for us, imbedded deep within that solution is the problem of ever increasing spam.
Given the cost of email, and factoring in our ability to seek out cheap solutions to problems, spam is an inevitable marketing strategy. As inevitable as a plague of poisonous toads in a land without a large enough number of sufficiently immune predators.
“So what has any of this to do with cell phones and succession planning?” you mumble impatiently to yourself as you sip your morning brew.
Cell Phones are a technological solution to situations we tend to perceive as problems. They make it possible to contact someone whenever the need arises. The package didn’t arrive? Call the boss and find out what to do! The client is upset? Call the boss! The machine is broken? Call the Boss!
The cell phone is the best ‘decision avoidance’ device on the market. To compound the problem, it directly and very effectively reinforces the ego of
those who believe they’re indispensable. Their way of managing is to hoard the entire decision making process. Staff aren’t allowed to make decisions if the boss is available to provide guidance, and thanks to technology, the boss is now available 24/7!
This issue crystallized for me during a recent training session on the art of delegation. In a period of about three hours, each of 15 students (first level managers) left the session to answer ‘urgent’ calls from the office. Never one to let the perfect learning moment go untapped, and having built a strong rapport with the attendees, I
challenged them to use these interruptions as an opportunity to learn something.
As we examined the reasons for the 15 different calls, we came to the surprising (?) conclusion that none of them warranted the interruption of a training session. The only one which challenged us a bit was the need for the manager to supply a password to a computer system. Which led to the question, if it was needed by staff, and if it was okay to obtain it over the phone, then why did they not already know it?
Yet, even though we all agreed the interruptions were unnecessary, I was unable to convince them to turn off all their cell phones. The reason given was
still “But what if they need me?!”
This is of course the reason why succession planning is so important to organizational success. We cannot allow the successful operation of our organization to be
held hostage by the skills, knowledge, physical presence or accessibility of individuals.
If we cannot go offsite for a day or two without turning off the cell phone, then we’ve not empowered our staff to think. If, when we go on holiday, we’re constantly calling into the office, then we’ve failed to create an infrastructure which can survive without our input.
The problem we face is that the cell phone capitalizes on human frailty. It is far easier to be accessible via cell phone than to train our staff to think on their own. It is far easier to be accessible than to practice the difficult art of delegation. That this natural tendency to choose the easy path, inevitably handicaps the training of our replacement, is something we’d rather ignore. That’s a long term negative consequence which
we are all too willing to discount in the face of short term gains.
In short? To gain the ability to make decisions, we must make decisions - not phone calls. By turning off our cell phones, we’re not only giving ourselves a break from the office, we’re training our staff to be self reliant, and we’re training them to be future managers.
© 2005 Peter de Jager – Peter is interested in all things related to Management, but especially Change Management.
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