That Vitamin Distraction

April 14, 2015 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Quality, Teamwork 

There’s an old (and frankly, tired) query that investors will pull out of their bag of clichés, usually when they are leaning away from funding your idea: “are you building vitamins or painkillers?”. The suggestion is that painkillers fix an immediate need and sell better – more attractive to those that want instant financial gratification as well. Hopefully, we’re not all consumed by that myopic view.

Granted, short term results are important – they demonstrate that we’ve made the right decision, that our money was put in the right place, that we have improved in some way.

For that short term, anyways.

Often, though, the lustre of that shiny new object – be it new technology, the latest book-of-the-month process or model, that hot commodity – fades over time. Sometimes quickly as the latest shiny new thing comes along, sometimes a little more slowly as the quick fixes become overwhelmed by the return to prominence of the underlying issues that were there all along.

In the long term, painkillers rarely address these underlying issues. By that time, though, those that have profited by selling painkillers are gone, having extracted their profit. Oh, they’ll be back, with a new release of their product, the latest sexy elixir, or another dose of the same thing you bought before as the pain arises.

And we live in a world where we seek painkillers, and companies selling painkillers are the ones that get the backing. Selling painkillers is good business for those primarily concerned about their own, tactical bottom line.

Sure, there’s plenty of arguments against vitamins. They’re not sexy, they’re tough to sell, and the jury is out about whether vitamins actually provide any benefits at all.

I’m not so sure the vitamins or painkillers is the right question to ask at all. It’s definitely the right question if you are selling painkillers and aren’t concerned about really fixing the problem.

If you are on the buying end, though, the question should actually be about remedy vs. painkiller. Short-term relief may be fine, but the long-term cure is what you should be looking for.

It’s not really about vitamins at all, that old cliché is really a false dichotomy.

in any organization, for projects or ongoing sustainment, the vast majority of what is done is collaborative (or really should be). It’s all about interaction between people, within the team, with suppliers, with clients, with collaborators and competition. It’s about these people engaging effectively in the workplace, with adequate focus and shared intention.

Any issues that exist in these interactions are a source of friction. As we go through our lives, at work or otherwise, we all experience this friction, every day. Misunderstandings, different objectives, and distractions happen to all of us. The problem is, we see this as simply ‘the way things are’, we resign ourselves to the notion that projects are hard, that there are some people we will never get along with because they are so different than we are.

Those painkillers don’t address this underlying cause, and we don’t understand how much all this friction is costing us – financially and emotionally.

In discussions with literally thousands of people, the underlying causes of challenges on projects always has to do with relationships, respect, shared goals, trust. It’s always about effective collaboration, it’s an issue in any organization I’ve been in and worked with, and the magnitude of this underlying cause can be massive.

Whether it’s manifested as challenges in retaining staff (and I’ve worked on a huge multi-year project with 40% turnover per-annum), as an inability to deliver what the client wants or needs (I’ve worked with one company where R&D spent 70% of all their time dealing with client reported issues with their product), or internal conflict and lack of common drive within the team (insert your own horror stories here), the costs can be huge.

These examples are extreme, but I’d suggest that if you think there’s less than 25% inefficiencies where you work, you are likely delusional.

Attacking that root cause is seen as a cost in most shops, as it doesn’t directly produce something that brings us closer to our destination. It’s overhead, we’re too busy to take the time for consciously building a high performing team, to take the time to align everyone in the same direction, to make our human resources more resilient. It’s seen as a cost, and the skills to make it happen aren’t generally provided in school.

But this is lubrication against that friction, it directly addresses the root cause of malaise in most organizations. How far would you get in your car without any oil? Do you avoid adding oil because you think it costs too much?

Add the right lubrication, the vehicle runs more smoothly, it’s a much more pleasant drive. It doesn’t take a lot, and it’s an investment, not a cost. Consciously investing in well balanced, appreciative and collaborative teams is the best investment you can make.

It eliminates your dependence on painkillers, it’s way more valuable than vitamins. – JB


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