Beware of the Invisible Man

Chris Eckert

May 29, 2015

Beware, he’s out there. A righteously bad dude, by all accounts. He holds everyone back. The guy who doesn’t support RCA or your efforts to make improvements. You might know him. I find that few can speak a name though (Lord Voldemort, perhaps?). I usually hear him referred to generically as “Leadership”.  

I wanted to find this rotten individual, “Leadership”, who casts a negative net over the organization. So began my quest.  I started by talking with others who had ‘leadership’ in their title, figuring they must know this fellow (at least they should be able to confirm his existence). However, over and over, they were not the least bit familiar with what I was describing. Most seemed puzzled as a matter of fact.

During my discussions with the other leaders, I repeatedly got the impression that they supported and encouraged their teams to apply RCA on problems. But, this is almost a direct contrast to what I hear from many at the pointy end of the stick. Hmmmm……. “Leadership”, I thought, apparently is an invisible man who must only speak to people about what they can’t or shouldn’t do.

Some things started to gel. Years ago when I was a young, practicing engineer, the invisible man spoke to me—I just didn’t know it at the time. He told me that I couldn’t take risks; I couldn’t do anything that my boss didn’t specifically tell me to do. In my mind, it was clear that if the bosses wanted me to do something, they would tell me. I took the invisible man’s advice to heart. To do otherwise would surely get me in trouble. But then one day, I met another engineer named Dave. Dave was the same age as me, mid 20’s, but he was doing things that no other 3 year, or 5 year, or even 10 year engineer was doing.  He was pushing envelopes on projects, occasionally bending  protocol along the way (seemingly within logical reason) and rewriting the book of tribal knowledge of ‘how things are supposed to be done’.  Dave was grabbing responsibility left and right. He was directing people, making decisions and getting more stuff done than anyone else. He quickly solved problems and eliminated road blocks.   He also seemed to be getting more money to spend on new projects, and he seemed to be gaining more influence with the big bosses. Interesting. Apparently, Dave had not yet met the invisible man.   

I spoke to Dave one day about his modus operandi and asked ‘how is it that you do the things that no one else is doing?  Who told you that you could do these things?’ His answer was enlightening. “Chris, until someone tells me to stop, or demotes me, or fires me, I’m gonna keep doing this. Furthermore, as long as I keep getting promotions and more money stuffed in my pocket, I’m looking for ways to do even more of it”. No one ever stopped Dave. No one demoted Dave, and no one fired Dave, even though other engineers would frequently speak under their breath that “He isn’t authorized to do that” or “He is not supported to make that decision”. That day is when I learned the real truth about the invisible man.  

Fast forward 25 years and the invisible man is still around. He is everywhere and arguably, bigger and badder than ever! Of course, things are different ….years of cuts and downsizing has left substantially fewer leaders and managers to provide clear direction as compared to 25 years ago. Further, the current economic reality has made coloring outside of the lines a riskier venture in some ways, especially within organizations actively seeking to reduce headcount.  However, in most places, downsizing has subsided leaving most organizations extremely short-staffed and with ongoing, unfilled positions. Despite upticks in job security, the invisible man mindset prevails---Why do anything that you are not told to do? Why risk it?  Keep your mouth shut, head down and hopefully you make it through the day. ‘Ya, stuff isn’t going as well as it used to, but if someone from above wanted it fixed, they would tell me.’ That’s the invisible man talking—watch out. Listening to him presents as much, or more, personal risk than stepping out and putting forth your best effort to solve a problem.

If you are waiting for the boss to tell you that you should do something, like an RCA on a failure or outage, it probably isn’t going to happen. Leaders today are overwhelmed. Their jobs and the number of direct reports they have to manage simply doesn’t allow them much coaching time or the ability to stay in tune with all the day to day problems happening on the front lines.

Run a test. When you see something that isn’t right, don’t walk past it. Don’t wait for the boss to tell you to fix it because that isn’t likely to happen. Odds are the boss doesn’t even see the problem, let alone have the time to talk to anyone about it. The last thing they want is another problem dropped in their lap without any solutions being proposed. People are very busy these days, so if you are in this situation, you will have to make time for the RCA. In most cases, you only need a couple hours.  

If you want to get noticed, a raise, or recognition, stepping out and tackling an important problem is probably going to get you far more mileage in the long run than providing quick responses to emails.  Bosses want problems solved. Do an RCA. Quantify the loss. Build your business case and present your recommendations (I would be happy to help). I can’t think of any leader that I have spoken with recently who wouldn’t be happy to be presented a quick synopsis of a problem, the causes, the solutions you recommend, and the ROI they bring. Most RCA’s uncover low cost solutions, so breaking the capital budget usually isn’t required.

If you have been doing RCA but you feel that you are not supported by your leadership, check one thing first:  Are your RCA’s really effective? Are you using a structured, logical approach that efficiently diagnoses the causes? Are you exposing new, fresh solution opportunities or are you recommending, ‘retrain, re-communicate, reinforce’? Are you making the business case by quantifying the loss and providing the cost of your solutions? Is your analysis incorporating the perspectives of others who are affected by the problem? Are you documenting the results to back all this up? If you can’t conclusively answer “yes” to these questions, look into boosting your skills and use software to organize and present the results.

 If your skills are solid and you are documenting your results, strap on the boxing gloves and keep punching the invisible man in the nose. Good results through application of RCA will not go unnoticed for long.  

Dave never met the invisible man and he has gone on to be a very successful leader within multiple organizations. When I stopped listening to the invisible man, good things started happening for me. I expect  the same will happen for you if the invisible man has been paying you a visit.