Whatever your political bent, or your view of the American media, you’ve got to love the recent comments of Lieutenant General Russell Honore during the Katrina aftermath.
When interrogated by reporters about Katrina-related mistakes and miscues, during the immediate aftermath of Katrina and the pending arrival of Rita, the Lt. General fired back with one of the best “in your face” rebuttals in media history. “You guys are STUCK ON STUPID!”, he said, “…and I’m not going to answer those questions!” Then, as only great leaders can do, he shifted the attention to what could be done NOW… going forward. In one short phrase, he showed the insanity of a backward looking fixation in a time of crisis, and the importance of quickly learning from mistakes and moving on. If only we could instill that kind of thinking into our organizations and personal lives.
We, as a culture, waste a lot of time fixated on the past. This is a tricky topic, because in order to learn, we have to be able to look backwards. I don’t believe the Lt. General meant to suggest we not look backward. Rather, I believe, he intended to show us the art of WHEN and HOW we should look back.
Here are a few of my observations about backward-looking actions, and where that line exists between effective diagnosis and what the good General would call a “stuck-on-stupid” culture:
1. When (and WHEN NOT TO) look backwards- the theme I believe was most central to the Lt. General’s comments was this: There is a time and a place for a backward looking assessment.
In a football game, assessments occur at various intervals- half-time, end of quarters, during time outs, in the huddle, and sometimes even right before the play during a “check off” at the line of scrimmage. But assessments and questions about fault or blame NEVER occur DURING the play. The few seconds it takes for the play to unfold is about execution only. How stupid it would appear if one of the sports reporters walked onto the field and began questioning the coaches and players in the middle of a particular play. In sports, we see that kind of on-the-field interference as unacceptable, but in other crisis situations (like Katrina), we don’t think twice about the appropriateness of it.
In business it’s even worse. We have management agendas, advisors and consultants, board politics, and a myriad of other factors all screaming their opinion about how the play should unfold. Let’s take a lesson from our sports brethren, and save those assessments for AFTER the play is run. There’s nothing wrong with good assessment. But let’s save them for a time when they’ll have real impact instead of being seen (appropriately) as a distraction.
One more quick analogy on when and how often we should look backwards. Think of the last time you drove a car. How much of the total time would you say you looked in the rear-view mirror. Most driving instructors will tell you that you should look up into the rear-view mirror about once every six seconds. That translates to about 15% …probably not too unreasonable a number to shoot for in the workplace.
2. Are our comments focused on specific behaviors or root cause? A lot can be observed by the questions we ask during a review of a failed strategy or play.
There is a great story that is told about a man who walks down a street and falls into a deep hole. He does the same thing each morning, with each day producing little or no real insight. The first few days are spent asking “why me?” type questions. The next few days are spent getting out of the hole quicker and more efficiently. The next few days, he walks around the hole. It’s not until the last day that the man decides to take a different route altogether, eliminating his risk of falling into the hole entirely. For many days, we might say this man was “stuck on stupid”. But he finally learned to ask the right questions, and only then was he able to solve his problem.
3. The “SO WHAT” Test- Early in my career, I had a boss that would frequently add the margin comment “So What?” to his review of various letters and reports written by his staff. It was his way of saying, “OK I hear you… and I get your point, but what is the implication, or conclusion I should draw ?”.
I’ve since applied this principle to much of what I do in business and life, and I believe this was one of the Lt. General’s key messages in his “stuck on stupid” rant. Assessments are great, as long as they lead to new learnings, AND a new way of doing business. Most of the time, if timed right, good assessments will lead to changed strategies or actions. But there are many cases (and you see them everyday) where the main purpose of an assessment is to assign blame or channel criticism. It’s those cases where the assessment is better left alone, at least temporarily. Again, you can always come back to it later after the play is run, or the game at hand is over.
4. Setting a new bar (measure the future not the past)- One way to get “stuck on stupid” is to keep hammering away at a measure of metric that has failed you more than once. If that’s the case, its time to either change your approach to the problem, change the measure, or both.
On first blush, you might say that changing the measure seems to be taking our eye off the ball, or conforming the metric to fit your situation. But in years of studying performance, I’ve found that repeated failures typically mean that you’re not sending the right signals. That is, often you’re tracking something that is too distant from an individual or team’s accountability area.
Last week, I played in a “scramble” format golf tournament in which each player hits a shot, and the team selects the best of those shots from which to progress. Our team was composed of a long hitter (driver), approach man (for mid range shots), an “up and down” guy (for greenside shots), and a good putter. Each one of us excelled in a particular area. We’ve played these kind of tournaments many times before. But this time, we tried something different. We decided to assign goals for each category of performance, so that for example, the driver was responsible for # of fairways hit, the approach guy was responsible for greens hit in regulation, and so on. The impact on our collective performance was significant and noticeable (I wont tell you our net score but I will say it was a notable improvement), and far better than the occasions in which we focused only on the total score.
5. Avoid the blame game / Reward (vs. punish) failures- this one is related to, but a bit different from #3 above, in that it deals with how you treat and reward accountable individuals.
In all of our organizations, we have those individuals who try new things, embrace change, and have a real bias toward action. Sometimes, improvisation is necessary, especially if the situation is very dynamic. And it’s in those cases where you need to reward quick decision making based on grounded assessments and learning.
There was an old adage years ago called “Go Ugly Early (and Often)”. Give me someone who learns and implements change quickly, versus someone who gets “stuck” in analysis of past performance. Looking back is good, but you’ve got to reward those who can also look forward and ACT. To me this is the essence of the Lt. General’s comments.
Let’s face it, there’s something about the word STUPID that gets our attention. We saw it in Clinton’s campaign with the catch phrase “It’s the economy STUPID”. And while we scold our children for calling someone Stupid, none of us wants to be viewed that way. Why do you think we play the blame game so much? It’s all an attempt to not be viewed by our peers as the one who “dropped the ball”.
What we don’t always see, however, is that it is just as (if not more) stupid to “lock in” on failures and analysis of those failures without a corresponding focus on the timing of our assessments, the changes that need to result, and the speed with which we can then move on.
Let’s hand it to Mr. Honore for calling it as he saw it, and getting all of us motivated on what the future holds, rather than getting hung up on our past failures.
Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at email@example.com