- John Chambers, PhD
Enterprise Changers -- from Weakness to Strength
"An arch consists of two weaknesses which, leaning one against the other, make a strength.”
Leonardo Da Vinci
I would never characterize any of us as weak. But we rely on each other. Our singular strength is not as formidable as our unified strength. Our companies depend on that.
For highly performing teams, we regularly calibrate our organizational strengths and how we can adapt, evolve, and leverage each other’s talents.
As manager, you are constantly adjusting. Just as the creators of the famous Gateway Arch did.
A magnificent structure, the St. Louis icon represents the doorway to the west, doorway to adventure. Most of the sections, varying from 17’ to 54’, were fabricated in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then transported by flat-car, clacking along its own journey -- westward to the Gateway City. Talk about supply chains.
The Gateway Arch is a marvel of architectural ingenuity, a symbol of engineering talent and mathematical concentration. There is no structural skeleton; it virtually supports itself by its shell of interconnected stainless-steel and carbon, rising to its pinnacle. Richard Grigonis, who also captured the Da Vinci quote, speaks in detail here, of dimensions, precision and history. After decades of approvals, and plans, and then three years of construction, the two legs came together on October 28, 1965.
The project succeeded under the tuned focus of professionals; they monitored their progress not in weekly sessions, but every single day.
Therefore, something else is welded inside the gateway’s 40,000 tons of concrete and tiles – managerial talent and daily vigilance.
According to a piece in Time.com, “The curve of the monument… was calculated by hand, with the Army Corps of Engineers using a calculating device (‘what we would not even consider to be a computer today'…) to double-check the precision. Builders could only take measurements at night, since warm sunlight caused the structure to flex very slightly. Constant measuring and adjusting kept the arch on track.”
Constant measuring and adjusting, indeed.
Keeping on Track
In cross-functional teams, in corporate organizations, we rely on our teammates. We depend upon their skills, differentiated from our own. We embark on processes to execute daily, to deliver in a quality perspective, and to remain true to frameworks that are designed (architected) under a synergistic enterprise.
But it’s not just frameworks and blueprints.
A long while back, an executive leader reminded me of a corporate expectation, one that is sometimes ignored throughout industry. The expectation was directed among all ranks of supervisors and managers, directors to executives. He spoke of involvement, of hands-on review and mindful assessment. He wasn’t expecting the vice presidents to pen all proposals, nor to design complex software programs each day, nor to test AI functions in our lab, sitting side-by-side with our brilliant technicians. But he was expecting real involvement, face-to-face collaboration, daily coaching.
He expected the leadership was frequently asking, and always learning.
That executive spoke at length of the checks and balances -- not basic, monthly status reviews but, rather, conversational and analytical collaboration, as way of life. Managerial vigilance is about problem-solving without hesitation, when delays were occurring or when ambiguity was evident. The job of all managers is to stay involved.
He had tired of excuses for delays that appeared to mushroom out of managerial absence. He created a culture of involvement and supervisory immersion.
But he differentiated involvement from "getting in the way." Accountability was expected from the teams, but managers were also expected to foresee issues.
Were the executives not paying attention?
No, as a large company most executives were quite active. But active also means depth of attention. He instilled a renewed vigor in ensuring each manager, each executive, was communicating as frequently as possible. Whether it was speaking for two-minutes or two-hours, the culture changed, and it became the arch-like necessity -- "constantly measuring, and constantly adjusting."
When things went awry, he was quick to say, “I know the root cause. We weren’t managing this. We were too hands-off.”
And it wasn’t lost on us that he insisted on employing the pronoun “we.”
If keen, managerial involvement is absent in the culture, then we risk failure, never reaching our pinnacle, like unadjusted archway legs that strayed from their individual trajectories.
Over-reliance on the Blueprint
As I am one who insists on the illustrative approach in changes, improvements, and especially transformations, these words might surprise you: don’t over-rely on the framework.
It is fundamental of course.
It is mandatory.
It will help us.
But ultimately, it is lifeless.
Frameworks and templates are like coordinates on maps of assurance. They are tools that need us; tools whose value is diminished without coaches and guides.
I was reminded of this recently from another executive who articulated impatience over deliverables he had recalled from a previous experience. Those deliverables were like static schematics resting on a shelf, never integrated in the daily operation, nor embraced in the culture.
Artifacts are valuable only if they are managed.
Only if they are repeatedly embraced and used as a consistent and regular frame of reference.
There is no life in the artifact without the human and teaching leader.
Changes in an organization, large projects, the successes of teams, will never reach their pinnacle without the human element embedded into the technical. The rising of a new product, the elevation of a service, dependent on multiple professionals who are handed a plan or strategic framework, are unlikely to be successful without the immersion and engagement of the manager -- one who asks questions.
One who assures mutual understanding.
One who is empathetic.
Culture of Conversation
Imagine how those Gateway Arch sections climbed steadily, without the advanced computers we hold today -- with 1960's tools and classical mathematics; with basic calculators, hand-held instruments and unyielding focus. The progress was checked every evening as the arch cooled and the engineers validated the day’s progression toward the sky.
Visions of success might flash at us from a monitor, showing a compelling application, but the success is not realized without the living touch of collaboration. The handshake of a new customer, the fulfillment of a supplier’s promise, the achievement of a corporate objective require structure and frameworks; but only if they are driven by people.
The team, the human capital in the organization, completes the vision. The managers cultivate the energy, coach the emotions, and remind us of the objective, and the concentrated alignment necessary.
They converse with us always.
When I recall that executive from years ago, and the one from not long ago, they saw what was absent. They saw cultural inertia. They saw that all the sophistication and cleverness of templates and tools were just.... templates and tools.
Blueprints or ingenious frameworks, Visio diagrams, BPM presentations, and quantitative proofs are hardly enough to complete innovative visions.
They are not enough to achieve creative goals.
On-the-ground conversation, encouragement, collaborative problem-solving, and consistent reminders are what inject life into your programs.
This isn’t undermined by remote work environments.
As I’ve written before, our future (not happening fast enough, in my view) is a future where we are all sitting "next to each other," even if separated by leagues!
With our collaboration tools, holograms, monitors and robots scuttling about our rooms, we might be physically removed, but our presence should be felt as strongly as if we were sitting in the same coffee shop.
Managers, at all levels of the enterprise, constantly measure and constantly adjust.
But you are expected to understand the overall day-in-the-life of your corporate value chain. You are expected to coach regularly, and ensure our teams are embracing the tools and templates that were developed for optimal performance.
Constantly measuring and adjusting, always communicating, learning from the staff and they learning from you; this ensures each day was not just superficial progress but aligned progress -- like perfectly welding that next piece of tile, so the arch’s legs will meet above, leaning on each other’s strength, and creating the gateway to your company’s future.
In addition to celebrating the way west, the Gateway Arch was also a celebration of impeccable risk management. The workers and managers were as skilled as they were careful.
Prior to breaking ground, insurance underwriters estimated that such a monumental undertaking -- men suspended without nets at 600-feet in the air, beneath titanic proportions of crane-hoisted metal -- would ultimately cost lives.
Their calculations disclosed that 13 men would probably die before the project was completed.
But during the 3-year build, not a single soul was lost.