Avoiding flying upside down

11 May, 2011

I’m a big fan of the the West Wing, my wife and I must have watched it from beginning to end at least five times. It probably should come as no surprise then that after some reflection on what is going on at work this quote from the West Wing popped onto my head:

I was telling Josh Lyman about a friend who just got his pilot’s license. He told me the most remarkable thing. He said a new pilot will fly into cloud cover. There’ll be no visibility. And they’ll check their gauges, they’ll look at the artificial horizon, it’ll show them level, but they won’t trust it. So, they’ll make an adjustment and then another and another… He said the number of new pilots who fly out of clouds completely upside-down would knock you out. My office will make arrangements for me to endorse you in the morning. You keep your eyes on the horizon, Mr. President.

Three years ago we set out to create an environment where our members were connected to each other through series of communities of practice. These would enable them to share ideas, collaboratively solve problems and create opportunities to learn from each other. The problem is in recent months I haven’t been thinking about social learning or communities of practice, I’ve been thinking about technology platforms,  social media, marketing and brand exposure and building an audience. As a result while a little progress has been made on the  original goal it is not nearly as much as I expected by now.

How did I end up completely inverted?

Just like the pilots in the West Wing there has been not any single event that caused me to make an abrupt change in direction, instead it has been a series of tiny corrections as key staff left, new staff arrived and priorities shifted. This happens in all businesses all the time and these subtle shifts can be incredibly damaging; unlike when a conscious decision to change direction is made, we often think we’re still heading the direction we were originally. Because each shift is so small and often unrelated to the previous shift we don’t implement the controls that we do when we make a decision to go down a completely different path; simply because we often haven’t realised we are on a different path!

The only constant in any organisation is change, which means trying to achieve a long term goal is going to take persistence and commitment but more importantly it requires the team driving the change to keep their eyes on the horizon and ensure that the subtle shifts which are made to accommodate changing circumstances do not push them off course completely. If they do see this happening, they must stop and make time to question the new direction, the impact it will have on the old objectives, whether or not the original objectives should still be pursued and if they should; how will they be achieved in the new environment.

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