Ethics on a Small Boat (VI): The Unit Manager’s Challenge

(1,000+ words; last long piece in this series for awhile)

 From an earlier small boat post:


Your ultimate goal?  To have your people know the system in which they operate so well that they can imagine the impact of their actions before they act and adjust accordingly.  You want them as alert, as conscious as they would be on a small boat in big water.  That’s the managerial challenge…


So here’s a way to get started.  It’s not the only way, but it is a way.  (Feel free to improvise on this or come up with something else altogether.)  Get your unit together (literally or virtually) and ask them about their experiences in actual small boats.  Ask them: “What was the best experience you ever had in a small boat?  The worst experience?  The most surprising experience?” 


Ask them:  What’s different about being in a small boat versus a larger boat?  What’s different about the way you need to behave?  The way you need to relate to other people?”  


Basically, you’re looking to elicit from them at least these two ideas: (1) “On a small boat your actions can have an immediate and potentially serious impact; you can sink the boat if you don’t watch what you’re doing” and (2) “On a small boat you have to really pay attention to the environment around you because it can impact you very quickly.”


Now shift the focus of the conversation to your unit:  “How does this relate to our unit?  What are the connections between small boats and our unit today?  How do our actions affect others in our company?  How do they affect our customers?  Each other?  What happens when we don’t do what we’re supposed to do?  What happens when we do? 


“What do we need to pay attention to in our environment?  What could sink us?”   


You could move right here to come up with two or three principles or rules for behaving in a “small boat way” in your unit.  Or you could say: “Let’s investigate this further; let’s see how our behavior really does impact others.  Then let’s see what we might do in light of what we learn.” 


For investigative purposes, then, assign volunteers from your unit to spend quality time with those to whom your unit connects in some way.  Have them report back with the following information on these stakeholders:


Ø    Here’s their situation…and 2-3 things we didn’t know about their world today.

Ø    Here’s what they really need from us now.

Ø    Here are the little details that make a big difference.

Ø    Here’s what happens to them (how it rocks their boat) when we don’t deliver.

Ø    Here’s what they want our relationship to look like going forward.

Ø    Here are some initial ideas for what we should stop, start, and continue doing. 


As you get these reports, and ideas emerge for improvements in your systems and processes, ask for volunteers to implement them.  Keep track of progress and measure the impact.   As discussed in a previous post, immediate and compelling feedback drives small boat behavior.  So involve your team in figuring out how to elicit continuous, real-time, compelling feedback on the impact of your actions.  (The standard monthly or quarterly survey just won’t do the job.) 


Now you might have a conversation about behavioral principles or rules.  Say: “By themselves, changes in our systems or processes won’t get us where we want to go.  What are the two or three principles or rules to which we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable?  Two criteria for making the short list: it will make a real difference if we live it; and it is easy to understand and remember.”


After coming up with your behavioral principles, ask your team how they want to “do” accountability…and how they want to keep things fun, too.   Maybe keep using the small boat concept as part of your approach.  Maybe your team passes around a little “small boat” trophy to members when they do something that exemplifies good small boat behavior—and a miniature “cruise ship” when they don’t.


[Great teams or units are intentional about the way they impact others…and the members hold themselves accountable with a “be better everyday” attitude.   (The “leader” doesn’t have to do it all.)  Not-so-great units are unconscious regarding their impact…and members put more energy into evading accountability and passing blame than discovering their real impact and making responsible changes.]


At some point in the process (there’s no magic to this; you and/or your team decide the timing) you might want to create a purpose statement to go along with your 2-3 behavioral principles.  This statement would answer the “Why do we exist?” question in a way that’s meaningful for your unit.  It would set forth a “noble intention” for your group—how your unit intends to make things life better for those it serves and/or those with whom it interacts.


So there might be some possible phrases or images for your unit’s purpose that arise as you go forward.  Your job is to capture those emergent articulations and see what resonates with your team.  Or you might want to ask them directly for their ideas.  Or you might have your own idea that you test with some folks.  Just don’t make it too much of a formal, wordsmith-type exercise.  That will kill the spirit of the thing. 


And if your company has some kind of purpose or mission statement, try to link with that, but don’t get too hung up on it.   If your unit is performing, senior management likely won’t care if you use their particular formulation or not. 


Two other things: I would also encourage you to work with your group to establish one or two stretch goals related to your purpose as a kind of star toward which you can row (or sail) together.  And keep studying your systems and processes to understand the leverage points and vulnerabilities.  Rotate people into different assignments (or do some kind of cross-training or “shadowing” program inside your unit) to ensure that everybody knows how the systems works and can fill in where needed when needed.  The best crews do those things.  Their purpose is too important to them to leave things to chance. 


Going forward, keep a spirit of adventure and experimentation.  Don’t be afraid to try something new or drop something that isn’t working.   Keep your star in sight, but adjust your sails, reset your rowing cadence, or chart a revised course according to conditions and feedback.  


The dynamics of small boat travel create certain ethical imperatives, as discussed throughout these posts, but riding close to the water with a committed crew on a purposeful expedition can offer some extraordinary compensations.  And since technology will no doubt continue to shrink all boats, we would do well to adapt intentionally to small boat disciplines now.  Bon voyage.