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I remember having this awkward discussion with a manager quite a while ago. It was so poignant it still makes my feel sick whenever I think about it…

Me: “So, after all is said and done, one of our conclusions is that a lot of the leaders – including yourself – are too far from the work. You don’t know the struggles that your staff are going through, each and every day, to get things.”

Manager: “Let me stop you right there. How dare you tell me that I don’t know what’s going on in my own business. I know exactly what is going on!”

Me: “So you’re saying that you knew everything that we found when we mapped the customer journey, and you already knew what your staff were having to do in order to get things working? And you already knew that the customer experience wasn’t great because of that?”

Manager: “Yes, I know everything that’s going on! My people work hard to deliver.”

Me: “Yeah, they do… but they don’t have to work as hard as they do. Acting on a lot of the things we found here would ease their pressure, their workload. Free them up to do other things.”

Manager: “Yeah, none of the things you found are a surprise to me. This was a waste.”

Me: “If nothing was a surprise, then why haven’t you already done something about it?”

The manager in question never did take ownership for the work, the systems, and the rules they were responsible for. Things did not change. And many of the people that we worked with in that exercise have left that company, moved departments, or in one case, changed careers altogether. I keep in touch with many of them, too.

Talking about the capability work and the customer journey mapping exercises we did, many of them are now disenfranchised. The manager was given the data, that they took time out to gather, collate, and present. It showed unequivocally that things were in a bad way, and that they were spending upwards of a third of each and every day – each one of them – working around the systems that were put in place as control mechanisms so that they could do their jobs and deliver to their customers.

And in one fell swoop, the senior manager wiped all that work out, dismissing it as nonsense. In doing so, they burned every single one of their people.

The lesson from this story is two-fold.

Firstly, in any exercise, the leader must be on board. They must be a part of everything, and fully involved with minimal distraction. They have to experience everything that their people are experiencing. People learn best from experience; having the manager experience the work, the hardship imposed by the rules they uphold, and the customer dissatisfaction that comes from it, is the best – and fastest – way to get a manger acting on their part of the world. The manager in this particular exercise was “too busy” to be there – and that’s always a red flag. This was an oversight on our part, and something we deeply regret.

Secondly, in any subsequent redesign the manager needs to have a direct connection to the work. They should be with their people, experiencing what is going on for them, with them. This feedback loop should be solidified in the work as normal, everyday practice. Failing to make this normal leaves the manager off in their high castle making decisions away from the work without really understanding their effect… and this leads us back to square one.