What Works Beware the Instant-Management Solution

September 14, 2001
Okay, I understand. You're busy, your coworkers are busy, your significant other is busy. I'm busy, too. I'm so busy that I could barely find the time to write this column. (Just ask my wonderful, smart, and understanding editor, who is graciously accepting this text after the deadline.)

All of my friends are busy. We fly past each other via e-mail every once in a while, and sometimes we get together for quick lunches at fast-food restaurants. Let's face it, it's tough to nurture quality relationships in this every-minute-counts society.

I know you've got a full plate yourself, so I'll save you time and jump right to the core. This column is about quick fixes. About the one-minute solution to this, the one-day approach to that, and the surefire Holy Grail to whatever else.

Surely you've seen all the books, tapes, videos, and workshops that promise to solve your workplace challenges faster than you can hand over your credit card. They have titles like How to Create the Five-Minute Strategic Plan! And Get Your Boss to Love You in One Day or Less! And Three Easy Steps to Energize Your Embalmed Employees!

And let's not forget those palm-size, quick-read books that offer complete life transformations in a few page flips. Heck, before long these books won't even have pages. You'll just buy a front and back cover with a catchy title and lots of exclamation points.

I'm waiting for the day when someone writes a book titled The Long and Complicated Process of Building Genuine Relationships with Coworkers. Or The Three-Year (at Least!) Guide to Great Customer Relations. Or 22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace.

Wait, I'm going too fast. Someone has written that last book. Me.

True confession: When I started interviewing people for 22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace, I was hoping to find "the three easy steps" to creating a fulfilling workplace. The P. T. Barnum in me wanted to write the book equivalent of "change management meets Happy Meal."

But something happened on the way to the finished manuscript. In hundreds of interviews, people responded in very different ways to the same set of questions. It was turning out that different people had very different ways of engaging their hearts and minds at work. Three easy steps? Forget it.

So my Happy Meal concept got trashed. I came to grips with the complexities of dealing with unique human beings and made that an integral part of the book. That's why there are 22 keys and not an easy 3.
I make no apologies for this. People are complex. Relationships are complex. Organizations are complex. Reality is complex. Let's acknowledge it and work with it-instead of looking for instant "solutions" that will help us get back to our "real" work ASAP.

Want a practical way to act on this? Try getting to know and understand the people around you. Those "hiya, Bob" hallway conversations don't count. You have to engage in open, honest, and at times inefficient dialogue.

For years I worked with someone who always held back in meetings. He was a nice guy with a stratospheric IQ, and we wanted him to express himself. We tried all sorts of one-minute techniques to encourage him to open up, but none of them worked.

Then I tried a different tack. He and I engaged in a rambling and occasionally uncomfortable conversation about his work history. Several years ago, he said, he had spoken up at an important meeting, and two days later his boss's boss told him to keep his ideas to himself or else. He took the warning seriously and was still keeping quiet.

We often turn to those quick-fix approaches because they offer simple "answers" that can make us appear (or so we think) smart and decisive. Try giving up on this notion that you as the manager have to know everything. Share challenges with employees, and together, all of you can come up with solutions.

A couple of years ago at the Ohio Office of Budget and Management, the director wanted to strengthen teamwork among employees. Instead of flipping through the latest quick-fix book and picking out ready-made changes, he opened the way to a series of employee focus groups with an outside facilitator.

Every employee had a rich opportunity to talk about the current state of the agency and offer improvement ideas. Then a team analyzed all the input. It took time for changes to emerge, but they were the right changes with real momentum behind them.

The quick-fix fanatics make things sound so black and white -- as if you can wave a wand, implement a dramatic change, and immediately pull out the victory champagne. Get real. We all know that major change requires testing, tweaking, and occasional scrapping. So do just that: try out improvements on a small scale before implementing them throughout the organization.

If you're still clinging to those quickie approaches, consider the bottom-line impact of going headlong down the quick-fix path. The following statistics come to us from the Let's Just Deal with the Fact That Organizations Are Complex Institute:

  • Time spent by manager to buy quick-fix management book: 15 minutes

  • Time to read book: 1 hour

  • Time to issue organization-wide memo announcing new and simple approach (found in book) as "our new way of doing business": 15 minutes

  • Time spent by employees to read and dispose of memo: 30 seconds x number of employees

  • Percentage of employees who snicker at manager's naiveté: 99 percent

Workforce, September 2001, pp. 28-30 -- Subscribe Now!