What happens when you break things you can’t measure?

As the dust begins to settle and we can start to see what’s been happening beneath the surface of the crisis, it becomes clear how much of our day to day business had become dependent on systems of some sort, and how fragile those systems are to disruption.

Beneath the more predictable issues with logistics companies, airlines, oil companies and anything that moves stuff and people about are far more subtle, but probably longer lasting challenges which money, not even the amounts that entitled corporations are demanding of somebody else’s money, will solve.

Our love of and near addiction to data leads us to focus on things we can measure, whilst beneath that the things that really matter, those areas that are harder to measure, have broken.

It may be hard to put them back together, and even where we do, the cracks will show.

And can’t see?

Apparently strong structures – from aircraft to bridges – fail unexpectedly. When we look for why, it’s the things beneath the surface – software bugs, metal fatigue, organisation culture that is wilfully blind because its focus is on the measurable – that are often found to be the root cause.

I suspect in this crisis, it will be relationships. As millions of people are put into the inherent uncertainty of furlough or more obvious uncertainty of redundancy, as probably more than a million SME businesses fail and more than a few corporates go the same way the whole mix of established work relationships evaporate. They are unlikely to recover, and cannot be glued back together the way they were.

The New Refugees

I spend a lot of my time talking to people in businesses- owners, managers employees, and individual corporate partners who are the edge of change, dealing with radical change or in areas of exploring new areas. The threads that hold them to the organisation are often weak. They are talented, often driven people with ideas and purpose of their own who sit a long way from the comfortable, often complacent centre. They are the ones experiencing what is happening, not reading about it after the event.

In the last few weeks, many of those threads have been further weakened, if not broken. If not furloughed, or made redundant the projects they have been working on have come to a screaming halt as business “goes to the mattresses”. When landlords and suppliers aren’t being paid, “non essential” projects and “soft spend” – training, marketing, research – stand no chance.

They are largely being left to fend for themselves, as the attention of business moves outwards to the markets and financiers, not inwards to their vital organs.The body corporate starts to fail, at first gradually, then before long, suddenly.

When I talk to these people, vital to the effective long term health of the organisation but “inefficient” in the short term, they sound like refugees. Disoriented and disillusioned, but far from helpless.

The Law of the Few

There are many models of what makes organisations vibrant, and all of them are remarkably consistent in showing an underlying “law of the few”

I’m familiar with the term, as many will be from Malcolm Gladwell’s work “Tipping Point”. He uses three archetypes:

  • The “maven” – those who know, who have mastery of their subject
  • The “connector” – those who sit at the vital nodes in communication networks. The people you want when you want to get an introduction to somebody you don’t have any credibility with, and want to talk to
  • The “salesperson” – the persuaders. The people who convince those you need to convince through their personal presence.

These people have two key characteristics:

  • They are scarce – in total, probably fewer than 10% of the workforce, and not identifiable by job role. They are more often than not the people who customers rely on to make things happen, and sit at the edge, not the centre of the organisation.
  • They are essentially independent and highly mobile. They work for the organisation because it suits them, not because they have to.

These are the people the 90% are dependent on when things get rough.

So what happens now?

The same thing that happens when you drop the phone. You lose connection.

The problem (if you’re an organisation) and the opportunity (if you’re one of the few) is that people are not phones you own that can be repaired.

They don’t break. They are always on.

They will use the skills that make them vital to the future to find a new home. They are like cats. You never own a cat, it just chooses to live with you whilst you feed it and care for it.

If you’re an organisation:

Of course cash is King, but if you don’t pay enough attention to your vital few, you may be left with a much depleted Kingdom in the not so distant future.

If you’re one the the vital few:

This is your time. Choose wisely. This period will not last very long.

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