The phrase “Getting Behind the Slides” refers to the ubiquitous PowerPoint slides used to
describe the reality of most business situations, plans, and projects. It’s important to get
behind the slides because the actual success factors frequently aren’t clear or can’t be
anticipated in the plan. In a talk I once gave, I illustrated this by showing a slide about
“Dancing” that listed the various aspects of coordinating movement with the rhythm, etc.
Then I asked everyone to stand while the Pointer Sisters song “Jump” – a great dance tune
– played and everyone danced for a moment - it was fun. The slide was accurate, but it did
a poor job of representing the reality of d a n c i n g. It’s useful to seek out the real success
factors, the less-than-obvious influences, the situation-specific opportunities that will really
make things happen.
Here are some experiences I’ve had over the years which influenced how I think about improving
Give me Training
Working with Massachusetts General Hospital early in my career, I was asked to design and deliver a
short training workshop on Conflict Management. I dutifully interviewed several potential participants to
understand the kinds of conflicts typically faced, reviewed the literature for relevant concepts and
tools, designed an interactive session, reviewed and edited the design with the leader, and ran the
program. Feedback, both immediate and longer range from participants, was excellent. The next time
I met with the leader, I asked for her feedback on the program. She said, “Oh, it was great, except
that one of the two people who were having the conflict didn’t attend.”
- Frequently, training seems to be the solution, but it may not be.
- What’s the real problem?” is a good question to keep asking.
My Real Graduate School
After grad school, I consulted with New England Telephone for three years on a training program for
new, first-line managers. These managers spent three days in a residential workshop with their
bosses. The program was innovative - a self-directed format, with just-in-time content for each
manager-boss pair. But most important for me, each evening, I would sit with the first-line managers,
while my co-leader sat with their bosses, to debrief the day and the working relationships. Week after
week, I heard managers describe the barriers they experienced, especially with their bosses. Week
after week, my co-leader and I were able to construct a two-perspectived snapshot of these work
relationships, plus and minus.
This was my real graduate education. It left me with a tremendous respect for the power of the
relationship between the employee and the manager, and a rich insight into its potential for
productivity and the barriers to its success.
- For broad organizational impact, tap the power of the relationship between the
individual and the manager. Toward the goals of corporate strategy and business
plans, effective performance and the professional development happen one at a time
with each person, and the manager plays a key role, for better or worse.
The power of the agenda
Just after Millennium acquired a second company, a kick-off celebration of both companies was planned
at a local hotel, with the two CEO’s presenting the vision of the combined company, a little history, the
obligatory champagne toast, etc. - what you would hope for in such a gathering.
What was different was that we added a few things:
- Instead of theatre-style seating, everyone sat at round tables (even though this meant excluding
contractors because of room-size – an unpopular, counter-cultural decision). Each round table had
people from both companies. A “What Is . . .?” page of questions on the tables served as a
conversation starter. The questions referred to acronyms or phrases about operations, traditions, or
inside-jokes of both companies. As a result, within 20 minutes, every person had met some individuals
from the other company and learned something about the other company in an informal way.
- Eight employees, a diverse, cross-section of the populations, were asked to hold the microphone and
speak for 2 minutes each about what combining the companies meant to them (included were:
someone acquired in a prior merger, a scientist with hopes of curing disease, a lab assistant who “likes
the company,” and a budding stand-up comic with jokes about how you can tell a merger is coming.)
- Getting “behind the slides” in this situation meant orchestrating broad-reaching,
person-to-person contact and a few laughs (despite the size of the meeting) and
amplifying a diverse sampling of grassroots voices.
A simple idea vs. procedures
For years I’ve thought it useful to adopt a very simple idea as a kind of mantra for the role of ‘manager
of people:’ the person who manages others has three responsibilities: manage performance, develop
people, and connect people with organization. Of course this broad concept doesn’t speak to all the
specific behaviors needed to carry out the role, for example, setting goals, aligning one plan with
another; listening to an individual’s career interests; giving constructive feedback; knowing the impact
of your personal style, etc. But if you had most managers of people continually thinking ‘performance,
development, connection’ you’d have a great company. Performance review forms will come and go,
as will four-step and one-minute techniques; but a simple, sound idea can create a mental map that is
powerful over the long term.
- I’ll take a simple, powerful, and broadly-held approach any day, over detailed
procedures that prescribe desired behaviors. My mental image of an ideal policy
manual is a very thin binder.
Culture and metrics
When the company I worked for was acquired by DuPont, I began to learn a lot about how big
companies work. DuPont was and is famous for its safety – its commitment and industry-leading
performance in safety. As an OD person, I was fascinated to see how the culture of safety, and the
norms for safe behavior, were infused throughout company systems, meetings, & traditions. Every staff
meeting in the company begins with a safety item. Every location tracks and reports safe
performance. Incident reports are used religiously for continuous learning company-wide. And
legendary clean safety records are prized and envied by plants and locations around the world.
I learned something else about the effect of DuPont’s keen emphasis on safety record-keeping soon
after we were acquired. While metrics and statistics have the power to drive performance and remind
people of values, there is a darker side as well. A few months after the acquisition, a person who
reported to me slipped and fell. The first thing I thought was “Will this have to be reported as a “lost
work day case” to headquarters?” My more typical concern for the victim, interest in her trip to the
emergency room, etc., came second. It hadn’t taken many months for me to internalize the message,
that we not only want people to be safe, we don’t want to have to report that anyone got hurt. My
exposure to arcane debates on what was and was not reportable reinforced to me the power of
metrics and especially how metrics can take on a life of their own.
- Leaders wanting to drive a company value into routine behaviors can learn a lot from
the DuPont safety analogy. If developing people were the priority, could it show up
everywhere, in metrics, staff meetings, etc.?
- Metrics are valuable and important, but don’t lose sight of why you wanted to track
them in the first place.
The Big Picture brought into clear focus
For several years in the late 80’s I facilitated a National Advisory Board of leaders in the Nuclear Medicine
Technologist profession. These senior technologists from across the country met to address key issues
facing their profession and the departments they led. When identifying the issues, this group’s
discussions would touch on very broad and complex factors such as national healthcare cost reduction,
the need for strategic business planning and accounting within their departments, typically imbalanced
relationships between physicians and technologists, the public perception of “Nuclear” scans, and the
level of professionalism of technologists. These broad issues directly affected technologists’ lives and
the prospects of their departments, yet they were too global to be attacked by a part-time, periodic
Advisory Board, with no staff support. But what the group accomplished was amazing. In the context
of the big issues, we selected a very practical gap that existed and filled it; the group decided to
produce very specific tools that they know would be useful to their colleagues throughout the
country. Some examples:
- A step-by-step workbook for creating a departmental strategic plan and using it within the
- A menu of do-it-yourself in-service education exercises to increase professionalism, for use at
department staff meetings.
- A portable slide presentation on Nuclear Medicine for use within the hospital.
- A workbook of Ethics Case Studies for use in department meetings to teach best practice in
- Though issues and system dynamics are large and complex, there is frequently good
practical work that can make a big difference on the ground.
A Funny Story ?
“I’m right handed so my right hand does a lot more than my left hand, but my right hand has such a
great attitude. It never looks over to the left hand and says ‘You don’t seem to do much.’ And the
other day while hanging a picture on the wall, my right hand swung the hammer and accidentally
banged the left hand. The left hand has a great attitude too; it didn’t say ‘I demand justice; give me
Humorous? A little? Maybe not that much though?
But an audience of over a thousand people broke into loud laughter at this story, when it was told
recently by the venerable Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. The prominent but soft-spoken author of
50 books had to pause until the laughter subsided so he could continue. Why was this story so
“funny” in this situation? Because of the context. Thich Nhat Hahn had been discussing the Buddhist
notion of ‘No Separate Self,’ that individuals should transcend the illusion of each person as a separate
self, and realize that we all share a common self. In this context, he raised his right hand and began to
tell the story. But there was more context that made the story so funny to the audience: everyone
had been sitting in complete silence for more than an hour; there had been reverential chanting, and
deep silence. The monk had sat cross-legged, without moving for the whole time, while speaking
quietly, in his broken English, about Compassion, Breathing In and Breathing Out, and Peace. When his
story of the right hand and left hand unfolded, it was against this reverential and serene context. Was
the holy man leading us to laugh? Yes. And against this background of cautious, robed reverence, the
story was nearly hilarious and the audience erupted in the joyful relief of laughter.
One story; two contexts; dramatically different experiences.
- Context is everything ~ well, not everything, but we miss a lot if we don’t give it a
lot of attention.
The Sigh of Relief
Vice President, Terry, had been frustrated with the contribution of Director, Ted, who reported to
her. She said to me, I’ve heard that we’re using management coaches for some people, and I’ve
decided to get a coach for Ted. . . . And the sigh of relief came over her.
Director, Chris, described a recent safety violation in one of the labs. He said to me, we should add a
line to our performance review form about ‘compliance with safety standards’ so that safety will be part
of everyone’s performance evaluation. . . . And the sigh of relief came over him.
The HR department learned of two instances of harassment or insensitivity to diversity, and began
discussing what to do, beyond following-through on the specific situations. A sub-team was chartered
to propose a training module for all managers. . . . And the sigh of relief came over them.
- It’s important to make sure that the improvements we plan do more than make us
feel better, that “we are doing something about it.”
- Beware the illusion of progress.
- Strong, sustaining solutions usually address multiple system dynamics.
“The human mind is not
adapted to interpreting how
social systems behave.
Evolutionary processes have
not given us the mental
ability to interpret properly
the dynamic behavior of
those complex systems in
which we are embedded .. “
Thus begins Jay Forrester’s
seminal article (1971) on the
Counterintuitive Nature of
Social Systems, which
triggered the study of system
dynamics & systems thinking
“One of the most valuable
lessons ... is to distinguish
between a problem and a
predicament. Problems can
be solved; predicaments can
only be coped with. Most of
the affairs of life, particularly
the most intimate and
important ones, such as
marriage and child rearing,
inescapable dilemmas -
predicaments .... I believe
that is true of management
as well. A problem is
created by something going
wrong, by a mistake, defect,
disease, or a bad
experience. When we find
the cause, we can correct it.
A predicament, however,
paradoxically as it may
seem, is more likely to be
created by conditions that
we highly value. That is why
we can only cope with it. ...
As they go up the ladder ...
executives ... deal
predicaments, not problems.
The best executives soon
discover that purely
analytical thinking is
require interpretive thinking
... and the ability to put a
larger frame around a
situation, to understand it in
its many contexts, to
appreciate its deeper and
often paradoxical causes
and consequences. Alas,
predicaments cannot be
Management of the Absurd
|Experiences and ideas
that have influenced my consulting approach