When the Traffic Cone is the Hazard

A story of the surprises that threaten your organization

Photo credit: CharlesDPhotography

“Should I swerve or drive right over it?” I had a few milliseconds to decide.

Suddenly, an orange cone that was designed to promote traffic safety was threatening to cause a traffic accident.

The cone was out of place, tipped over and lying in the middle of the road.

Surprise hazards can be devastating

Organizations are threatened by surprise hazards, too. A surprise hazard is anything within an organization that was originally intended for good but, in its current form, is harmful to the organization’s ability to achieve its vision, mission, and brand promise.

For a startup with little or no room to swerve, surprise hazards can be devastating.

What are the surprise hazards in your organization?

Maybe the surprise hazard is an information security policy that hasn’t kept up with your security innovations? Your product’s customer experience suffers as a result. Maybe it’s an employee policy that addresses a scenario that no longer exists? Your employee engagement suffers as a result.

Maybe the surprise hazards stem from conceptual problems and are more subtle.

For example, is folklore and tradition rampant in your organization? Are there mental models throughout the organization that aren’t intentional or not what you’d promote in a company-wide meeting? Are there competing priorities or expectations? Why is that? How numerous are they?

Start with the foundation

You’ve now started to see surprise hazards for what they are: threats to the success of your organization.

It’s tempting to think a startup’s solution is an unofficial license to run red lights and pass on the shoulder. Or to rely on raw talent and instincts alone. To choose a path and fly.

And rarely as a startup, you may be even tempted to add policies and procedures to solve the issue of surprise hazards.

Stop solving the symptoms. Solve the root causes. Start with a foundation.

Get your organization’s strategic foundation in place. You’ll start reducing the surprise hazards and get the most out of your initiatives.

1. Spell out and model the vision, mission, and brand promise

It’s critical that everyone on the team knows why they are there, beyond a paycheck. Team members need to be able to envision the ideal future state, your capabilities to achieve it, and the benefits promised to customers. In your words, and in their own words.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of a NASA janitor in the 1960's? He understood he was there to help put a man on the moon.

Nobody should believe they’re in the organization just to manage a backlog of user stories, a spreadsheet of CapEx and OpEx, or a list of policies and procedures. That’s just asking for those things to become surprise hazards — traffic cones tipped over in the middle of your road.

Lack a clear vision at your organization’s peril.

If you’re not sure what a good vision statement looks like, check out what Down to Earth Foods published. They have a well-crafted vision statement you can follow as an outline. Unless you’re lucky enough to be doing business in Hawaii, yours will be different. That’s good, because you won’t be tempted to copy their thoughts; but they’ll jump start your own.

2. Share the strategic roadmap plan and its progress

Don’t assume everyone knows and understands your big picture plans and progress. Review the strategic roadmap and its progress. It’s only fair to share the roadmap with the people you expect to be part of the mission.

“How will this change impact all of our teams, and how can we collaborate?” Ask the question. Bring a powerful perspective that helps reduce surprise hazards.

Here’s an example of what shared strategy looks like when you’ve nailed it:

Joshua from the HR team knows that his colleague Prisha in Marketing is closing in on a deadline for a product launch campaign. Although he has a new HR program to launch for the division, which includes Prisha’s team, Joshua also has some schedule flexibility. He talks to Prisha about an opportunity to coordinate.

Together, Joshua and Prisha decide it makes sense to wait to launch the new HR program. Joshua has already consulted with Prisha on the program itself, so working together on the launch is familiar. It’s one of many ways to help ensure that Prisha’s team is not distracted from the mission, which the entire organization has a stake in.

Joshua demonstrated his stake in the overall strategy, not just his immediate group’s initiatives.

3. Measure and reward teams for the overall mission’s success

Now it’s time to solidify the concepts in concepts 1 and 2 above.

The bottom line is that you need to measure and reward the teams for accomplishing the mission and achieving the vision. Or, for achieving progress toward it. Otherwise, you risk weakening the vision statement into a meaningless poster that hangs by the office coffee maker. There, but ignored.

This step is more difficult than it may sound. It takes a strong vision and mission to achieve the kind of buy-in we saw the NASA janitor exhibit.

Some team members may believe the desired outcomes are out of their control, or out of their sphere of influence. So accountability feels unfair. This leads to a bad, counter productive experience.

If the team views a measurement plan as unfair, you know you have more work to do sharing the vision and mission. The good news is that you have a feedback loop and can work on further improvements.

Buckle up, and begin reducing surprise hazards in your organization

Organizations are threatened by surprise hazards. Don’t solve the symptoms, solve the root causes. Spell out a clear vision, mission, and brand promise. Share the strategy. Measure and reward teams for overall success of the mission.

As an organization, you’ll begin to see the hazards for what they are. And they won’t stand a chance.

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