The Manager’s Role in the Whack A Mole Game

Jim Haudan
Chief Executive Officer
Root Learning, Inc.

Management can be like playing whack-a-mole – the old kids’ game where you try to pound down whichever mole pops up through the hole. While it can be an exciting challenge for a child, it creates utter frustration for adults trying to manage a business in the same fashion. In business, moles represent a mixture of new strategies or priorities and old initiatives. It’s the combination of these that creates the sense of being overwhelmed. First, there’s too much to do, and second, the design isn’t conducive to getting things done.

When Less is More

How can company leaders ask managers to focus more effort on building revenue and developing people if they aren’t willing to allow managers to back off on some of the past priorities that no longer matter? When companies stop any processes, actions, or behaviors, they provide employees with greater clarity and simplicity of purpose. Not only do they connect the dots for people, the people have fewer dots to connect. When people aren’t free to eliminate activities that are duplicated, redundant, no longer add value, or are mainly in the way of getting the job done, there’s never any relief!

When we’ve helped Fortune 500 companies to clarify and simplify their strategies so employees can understand where the company is headed, we’ve discovered that the remnants of old strategies are fundamentally barring companies from successfully launching new initiatives. These old strategies are the equivalent of “organizational cholesterol” that, if left alone, creates a blockage that makes any kind of strenuous new activity impossible. The whack-a-mole way of life continues, and more and more moles keep popping up.

Designed by “Experts”

Strategy communication is rarely designed with the user in mind. After the 1979 disaster at Three Mile Island, scientists investigated why the control room operators had made such terrible mistakes during the crisis. Amazingly, the findings didn’t place the blame with the operators, but with the design of the control room. Similarly, when company strategies fail, the fault does not usually lie with disengaged managers charged with implementing the strategy, but with leaders’ design for engaging these people in the critical imperatives of the organization’s future.

To be clear and understandable, a strategy needs to be simple. But most strategies we create are not simple, because the creators (the strategy makers) have forgotten what it is like not to know. The sentiment of the leaders is often, “We get it, so everybody else should too!” What leaders forget is how long it took them to get it, and why it’s necessary to go back to square one in making it simple for managers to translate for their people. This isn’t about dumbing down the strategy, but about making it sophisticated, elegant, and brilliantly simple so people can instantly grasp its meaning.

Leaders need to eliminate the feeling of “there’s too much to do” and “it’s too confusing” that usually result from not actively seeking out and discontinuing old ways of doing business. No one can be meaningfully engaged if they’re constantly whacking a herd of moles.