My friend Jose from Santa Barbara asks a group of us why his department never, ever, achieves its targets. “It’s all fire, ready, aim,” he says over a cool Caramel Frappuccino. “First we run off in wide-eyed panic with knee-jerk reaction to some invented volcano of organizational threat; then as actions stumble and fumble in 50 directions we design plans that contradict our colleagues in a dozen hermetically sealed silos; and then as failure, anger, and blame starts building like a mushroom cloud we delicately venture forth with questions about what the heck is the purpose and goal of all this anyway?”
Why, Jose asks, does this madness beset his supposedly sane organization? And has anyone else experienced this “fire, ready, aim” approach to organization development and change management? My thoughts to Jose are as follows, knowing that this forum will have (hopefully) plenty of other wise additions.
“Fire” (Doing before thinking): Information flows in a nano-second today with organizational reputations hanging by a thread of trust. It appears that being inundated by a daily barrage of unsubstantiated, emotion-evoking events evokes a primordial response from even the supposedly most-developed of management/leadership brains. As neuroscience tells us, a severe perceived threat or highly emotional event takes the synaptic express train from our primary receptors straight to the amygdala where emotions are greeted with fire alarms of fight, flight, and freeze. Because this short-cut by necessity bypasses our slow-as-molasses but thoughtful cognitive area of the brain, reactions are swift–if not always accurate. But better dumb than dead when reacting to a crooked stick that your amygdala says is a nasty snake.
Now, reacting to sticks that look like snakes makes sense. But using the same short-circuitry in organizational life is rife with trouble. Yet we see it daily. The CEO, the political leader, the Large Important Ego display the same pattern when reacting to the latest Twitter tweet, sensational headline, junk research, and other unsubstantiated “threat.” Not only do we see it daily, but I believe the gap between reality and rubbish is not only getting wider but occurring more frequently. So we get knee-jerk responses to imagined crises that create manufactured “reality” that takes on a life of its own. Which brings us to “ready.”
“Ready” (thinking later): Doing before thinking based on ego and emotion parallels our brain’s neuro-network in reacting to a sudden threat. We jump back in reaction to that curved stick but in a split second our sense-making frontal lobes say, “hey get a grip! That’s not a snake!” And all is well. If only that were also true with some leadership thinking as we develop our organizations. As Jose and many others witness, once the arsenal of reaction is deployed it is very difficult to introduce logic, facts, and reality into the equation. On the line are leadership and ego issues of personal pride, power, and purpose. Any threat to that can often be greater than the threat to the organization overall, creating an impenetrable armor of single-mindedness. Which brings us to aim.
“Aim” (just what the heck are we doing?): It usually doesn’t take too long. “Fire” followed by “Ready” quickly disintegrates into “Aim” where questions are raised about the exact purpose, goals, and thinking that went into the “Fire” stage. How come the measures are all about outputs not outcomes? And who exactly thought it was a good idea to measure customer satisfaction by how many people drove by the dealership everyday? Exactly what evidence was the Fire stage based on? Was it that unsubstantiated Facebook posting or was it the page 10 headline quoting an anonymous source? How those questions are answered, or even encouraged to be asked, is often the tipping point between common sense and more nonsense. But that’s just my view. I know Jose would love to hear your wisdom on how to prevent the “Fire, Ready,” Aim” pattern from starting in the first place.