Ever feel frustrated with your staff? Why can’t we get this right?! Why can’t we grow and change? I know that I have at times. The tendency is to blame. It’s my go-to knee-jerk reaction. Those Millennials, those marketing guys, those sales guys, those people! It’s easy for us to blame issues on the characters of others.
We look at short term results and say, “it’s somebody’s fault and it’s definitely not mine!” We then get exasperated and stop trying. We might be tempted to give up on trying to change ever again. Sadly, we often give up on each other as people. But what if there is something deeper going on here? Something that is sucking us all into this vortex of business process despair?
I’ve been studying at MIT’s School of Sloan Management. The focus is on business process development. They introduced me to this unique concept called the “Capability Trap”. (This is drawn from an article written in the California Management Review Vo 43 No. 4 by Nelson P. Repenning and John D. Sterman.) It is a toilet bowl effect that ends in the blame game disaster mentioned above. It’s when things feel stuck or at a standstill. It’s that “things are never going to get better” feeling that happens in business. It works like this: How the Trap Works
There is a problem (e.g. needing to increase production.)
We try to fix the problem with a new way of doing things (a new process).
Since the new process is “new,” no one is good at it. New processes always take several weeks or months to become efficient and productive.
So, we react in the short term to this new process as being ineffective. The ones who react to it first are the employees using the process. They often give up on it.
They still feel the pressure to perform, so they take shortcuts.
Shortcuts work in the short term, showing quick results. For example, “we skipped running the product through quality control, got lucky 9 out of 10 times, and got short term feedback of less work, faster outcomes, and happy bosses.”
Long term abandonment of the new improvement process will result in a worse product, and using shortcuts might result in a quality issue that loses a significant client.
Management finally gets exasperated and blames employees’ character, perpetuating a downward cycle.
The cycle above is called the “capabilities trap” because growing capabilities initially causes a downturn in productivity and output. It takes time to learn the new process. The short term feedback is that this is harder, different, and less productive, so the natural tendency is to give up on it. So we need to anticipate this downturn and plan for it. It will take a few weeks to get better, or longer, so stick with it.
Shortcuts as a Way Out
Remember that shortcuts, like skipping quality control, can save time and give great short term feedback. However, this will cost more long term and cause issues that prompt a negative pathway, depressing your workforce and outcomes.
Getting Off the Downward Cycle
First, Take Responsibility
Leaders need to shift their focus and their team’s focus to a long-term outlook. Avoid the blame game. If part of the process isn’t working well, be open to feedback as a manager, and discuss how it can be tweaked. Encourage long-term thinking and the belief that every small improvement leads to long-term success, which frees everyone up to work on improving, leading to a virtuous upward cycle.
Increase Feedback in the Short Term
Next, increase short term feedback loops. Check-in more often initially to ensure processes are in motion. Managers will need to assure the team that yes, it is harder now at first, but this should yield long-term success, which will ultimately be better for everyone. Praise the new process early and often. Build in the expectations of short term issues and slowdowns. Ensure processes are completed correctly and that the purpose is clearly understood.
So, let’s review:
Focus on long-term gains.
Warn about the false lore of shortcuts and giving up on improvements
Increase short term feedback between leaders and teams.
Create upward cycles of improvement.
Long term, the team that continuously improves frees up more time to continue getting better. This creates a prosperous upward cycle for all involved. You feel better as a team because you are growing and keeping your “promises” to yourself, your team, and your community you serve. This is a loving action and increases our long-term satisfaction all around. We need to focus our minds on the long-term goal.
Focus the Team on Long-term Outcomes
As leaders, we must focus the minds of our teams on what is really going on to escape the “capabilities trap”. It means avoiding the wrong way to interpret circumstances. Focus instead on how to create long-term success and long term wins. The investment in growing capabilities is not easy but yields greater success and healthier happier relationships long-term.
I cannot tell you how many times I have been caught in the capabilities trap with bosses, clients, and as a leader myself. This is called the fundamental attribution error. This is how our left brain likes to explain things. Our left brain makes us feel better when we come up with an explanation for things because the explanation seems to make sense to us on the surface. It also causes us to exonerate ourselves, as we are the victims of circumstance or other’s bad character. Many times, I have blamed others in this cycle rather than seeing beyond the trap. It is counterintuitive how doing the loving thing in business is often built on a foundation of doing things with insight and practicality. This leads to good kind caring outcomes, rather than just doing what feels good short term.
This is about valuing each other enough to work hard at how we do things in our daily lives. Everyone feels more cared for when we feel like we are all contributing to the upward progress of life for ourselves, our teams, and for the people we serve. And getting better, increasing our capabilities, means we need to embrace the long term investments. It also means avoiding the capabilities trap. It is a trap that takes some insight and reflection to see. So next time you feel the ire rising in you at work look deeper see if you are in a capabilities trap.