18

I've been dealing with a strange company culture issue.

Very often we will see a problem coming weeks or months in advance. We usually try to prevent the problem from occurring by bringing the issue to the management's attention and by asking for preventative measures, but the attitude usually seems to be "Don't talk about the problem." This wouldn't be such a huge deal if they wouldn't later get upset about no one telling them about the problem.

More or less we end up getting set up to fail because problems aren't discussed and thus aren't solved until it is too late.

Its a bit like being on a train and seeing that the tracks ahead aren't finished. When you mention it to the conductor their only response is "Don't talk about the train-wreck..." yet when the train derails the conductor claims that no one told them the tracks weren't finished and shifts the blame.

I understand that most employers prefer optimistic employees, but optimism doesn't lay train-tracks, or perhaps better put, optimism shouldn't replace due diligence and preparation.

Is there a way to shift a company's culture toward open dialog and problem solving or better yet problem prevention?

  • 1
    related (possibly a duplicate): As a peer, how can I provide leadership for my team? – gnat Aug 9 '15 at 17:22
  • Have you ever discussed a problem that you were told not to discuss that never became a problem? If the unfinished tracks are beyond the last stop on the line, the conductor would prefer you not cause a panic. – user8365 Aug 10 '15 at 15:44
  • 3
    Not to oversimplify, but the only way to replace culture that's this dysfunctional is to replace the management team. It's likely that your managers don't want you to be the bearer of bad news because they themselves don't want to be the bearer of bad news to upper management. – Roger Aug 11 '15 at 16:08
  • 1
    When you inform management of the impending problem, do you do so via email? If not, do it via email and save a backup copy to bring out when your manager claims no one warned them of the problem. – Maybe_Factor Oct 11 '17 at 23:49
  • 1
    It sounds like they are already aware of the problem and are choosing not to take action. I don’t know what more you can do. – AffableAmbler Oct 12 '17 at 0:24
11

Sounds like a case of toxic leadership.

In effect, you leadership has become quite risk-adverse to the point where they will knowingly make decisions that will result in failure. Self-sabotage if you will.

Although it would be difficult to pinpoint the exact nature of why your company culture is as it is, or how it go to this point. That isn't the goal of your question.

You question is "Is there a way to shift a company's culture toward open dialog and problem solving or better yet problem prevention?"

Before I continue, I wanted to ask whether or not you are willing to risk 'rocking the boat'.

Economically, I presume that you will get paid whether you decide to speak out or not. But consider the consequences of metaphorically being thrown off the boat. Will you be able to find another job if everything goes south? On the flip side, a good idea is often rewarded. You may be praised for correctly identifying the problem and preventing future occurrences.

Professionally, I presume that you have a valid and reasonable alternative to the status quo. I don't believe it will be productive if you were to point out this fatal flaw in a company without offering a course of action to remedy it.

This said, you question reminds me of a story told to me. If memory serves. The teller of the story was a senior statistician working as a consultant to a food and beverages company in the United States.

The company had a viable and potentially lucrative drink-recipe for market. However with 11 different recipes and a limited resource base to bring the drinks to market. Management decided to limit production to just three. The problem was: which three.

The teller's response was the following: "The correct number of recipes might be three, but it could also equally be two or even four. The problem here is that it is impossible to know. What we should do instead is find the number of recipes that maximizes shareholder value, return on investment and minimizes the cost of bringing them to market."

Applying this mantra to your case might be the following:

Dear Conductor,

I have spoken to a number of the train-team about [the problem]. Putting off this problem for the time being allows us to delay the inevitable. This course of action has its merits, but the cost to the company in terms of money, time and most importantly - sanity is far too high. This is not the first time that such a problem went about unresolved until it blew up in someone's face causing much harm to the team's morale.

If we want to grow as a team, as a company, this approach must be changed. Otherwise we risk mundane and trivial problems snowball to the point it causes catastrophic failure. How would we look if we were defeated by something as small as [something small in your company causing problems]?

Here are my suggestions to solve [the problem]. It might not be the solution, but I [along with the people that agree with me] all agree that doing [these solutions] will far more conducive to the company's goals than to delay it any longer.

If you would have the time, please let me know what you think about these proposals. I would be more than happy to speak with you at a time of your convenience.

Yours,

apaul34208

This is by no means a catch-all letter to the conductor-in-question. But I wrote it with the following concepts in mind:

  1. People don't like to be told wrong.
  2. People don't like to be told wrong without being told how to fix it.
  3. People respond to incentives (or decentives in this case of failure and cost)
  4. People are risk averse, but are comforted if they are not alone.
  5. People don't like confrontation, especially from a group of people.
  6. Based off of (4) and (5), let your conductor know that you are not alone, but you would not be mobbing him/her. Be receptive and open.
  7. People are not evil, at their core, people want to do good. You conductor may have very valid reasons to say "don't mind the wreck". But the problem is that you don't know until you ask. Assuming incompetence and negligence would not be conductive to your efforts of avoiding future wrecks if the keys to the train's control are not in your hands.

Sorry for long winded reply, hope this helps.

3

In Project Management we use active Risk Management to look for problems coming at us in the future, figure out how bad they are going to be and then take avoiding action.

Instead of talking about problems, maybe if you talked about Risk Management you might get more traction with management. Do you know people who constantly look on the negative side of things, always bringing up problems and moaning about how bad things are? Sometimes, and I'm not saying it applies to you, that is what it sounds like to "management" when people keep going on about problems (particularly when some don't hit or the impact is nowhere near as severe as forecast). However if you change the emphasis to "risk management", i.e. the art of foreseeing problems and making sure they don't affect you, well then what manager wouldn't want to do that?

There are different ways of performing risk management, but this is how I like to do it:

  1. Allow anyone who can foresee a risk that there will be a problem to log that risk- but make sure they tell you a few things (don't be fooled into doing the risk assessment for them). Make sure they tell you the Likelihood (1-5), the Severity (virtually no impact all the way up to massive impact on the company) using a small number of grades (say five). You can also add Proximity to this if you feel like it (from Very Soon to a Long Way Out) depending on your needs. They must describe the risk ("There is a risk that if a thing is not addressed now, we will not be able to deliver on time because of such and such"), and possibly the remedial actions (In order to prevent the risk from occurring we need to do these things, etc.)

  2. Multiply the Severity and Likelihood parameters together (assuming you used 1 to 5 for each for example) - This will give you a ranking number. You can also multiply by Proximity if you want to. Then, broadly speaking, the higher the ranking number, the bigger the risk- Big ticket risks will be more likely, have a higher impact and be closer in time to now. All these will equate to more money to rectify- The bigger the risk the higher the cost.

  3. Regularly review the risk log with the management. If they won't talk about all of them, then restrict the discussion to only the highest ranking risks (bearing in mind a risk's ranking can change, go up AND down, week on week). Talk about each open risk. What can be done? What is going wrong? Raise or lower any of the parameters as many times as you need to in order to reflect changing circumstances and knowledge and re-evaluate the rankings each time. What was a burning risk yesterday may not be today as things have changed- maybe something else is today's burning platform. Don't be afraid of amending the risks in the risk log, it must reflect the situation today not what the situation was when the risk was raised

  4. Repeat 3 endlessly until you have finished the job at hand. Don't be afraid to close and remove any risks that now seem to have gone. You can always reopen closed risks when the circumstances change again and it is counter-productive to have a risk log full of risks that are pointless as they will never materialise- it's a waste of everyone's time to maintain and discuss them. Just close them. Don't be afraid to add new risks when you learn something new. Don't ridicule anyone's risks- if someone somewhere thinks there may be a problem then listen to them and add it to the log, even if it gets quickly closed after due consideration

  5. Against each risk in the log include a Comments field and in that field jot a cumulative notes of changes to the risk e.g. "dd/mm/yy Lowered severity to "Not Likely" as testing has shown this can never happen except in very obscure circumstances"

As long as you can get someone somewhere to participate in this, it will probably pick up speed, because the more you discuss the more you learn (in respect of risks) and the smaller the bill for clearing up the train wrecks. If nothing else, it puts everything in writing and you can show the risks were communicated. You can even start adding in risks about non-takeup of the risk management process in certain areas. Once you get into an active risk management mindset, all of your endeavours fall into scope.

One thing though- once a risk actually occurs, it is no longer a risk it is an Issue. My strong advice is, remove it completely from the risk log. Risks are things that could happen in the future. Issues are things that have happened and issue usually need an immediate response and handling. Usually by a specific team or set of people. Keep your risk log free of issues, make it ONLY about helping you to predict the future and avoid the incoming problems by allowing yourself the maximum amount of time to do something about it before it becomes a problem!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.