Donald Mitchell asked:
“The only limit [to] our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.” –Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Being buffeted by strong and conflicting irresistible forces can be a little bit like being the proverbial little Dutch boy who notices that the dike is leaking. The child can staunch the leak or go for help. Which should be done first? In the story, he stops the leak with his finger and so must wait for someone to come by who can go for help.
In reality, many businesses will take neither action. They then run the risk of drowning as they stand by the widening leak, neither blocking it nor going to get help.
That may sound like an unreasonable reaction, but it isn’t unusual. When the Titanic first hit the iceberg, many people decided not to get into the lifeboats because it seemed safer to wait and see what happened than to sit in a small boat in the freezing ocean at night.
The “unsinkable” ship then disappeared under the waves in less than four hours following the collision. During most of that time, lifeboats were launched with empty seats, because many people felt there was no danger. Many hundreds more lives could have been saved if the women and children who were ordered onto the lifeboats had gone promptly into them.
Helplessness is most likely to be experienced in business during extreme booms and busts, and during large market shifts in the mix of demand for products and services. The feeling that people in the organization experience is somewhat comparable to being a passenger on a plane who, after the pilot becomes incapacitated, is asked with no warning to land the plane despite having no previous flight training. Add to the mix having no working radio to call for help and no instructor on board, and you get the idea.
Similarly, when an enterprise and its executives have no direct experience with the circumstances, they justifiably feel that they are likely to falter or fail with new directions. To make matters worse, organizations often reward “staying the course” with subjectively-derived bonus payments, and often punish those push for change as “boat rockers.”
This helpless feeling can also follow discovering that the only actions you can think of violate your values and your past promises. Say, for example, your sales drop in half and are likely to stay there for a year or two and you have a “no layoff” policy.
An executive may feel that there is no way out of fixing the business without violating the “no layoff” policy and hurting people who relied on that policy. As a result of these circumstances, progress may stall while the executive wrestles with this dilemma. Progress will finally be made when a new direction can be chosen that is consistent with the company’s past promises and the executive’s values.
In situations involving irresistible forces, delay is often very costly and can even be dangerous. Your organization can quickly recover its sense of being in charge of its destiny by developing better habits related to more appropriate assumptions. For example, your business will do better if you assume that good choices exist to use the irresistible forces to your advantage, if you become more skilled at developing alternatives, and create streamlined ways to reach decisions when a crossroads is reached.