The line at Subway was long. Limited-time guacamole. I watched people in the front consider their mounting decisions: at an extra fifty cents, guac or no guac? Which bread would you like, which meat, which cheeses? Mayo, mustard, or one of twelve dressings? Banana or jalapeno peppers? Salt and pepper? Hot or cold? A myriad of choices for a simple sandwich, it’s a wonder we ever eat.
Indeed, these were my thoughts when I felt my phone buzz and looked down to see the text. It was my colleague at school. “Betty, we’ve got a problem. Forget the sandwiches and come back ASAP.” Hungry and curious, I parked in the empty lot, made my way into the building, dodged a few headless subcontractors standing on ladders, and looked up and down for the problem. It was deferred maintenance time, and this summer’s projects were ceilings and floors.
She stood at a hallway intersection, hands in her shorts pockets, a “yikes” expression on her face. She pointed to the floor. Halfway down the hallway laid dark green and cream tile in a checkerboard pattern. “Wow,” I said, a little dizzy. “I feel like Alice in Wonderland.” “Bob is going to kill us,” she said. “But IT HAS TO GO.” I cringed. “Certainly didn’t expect this!” The small pattern in the long, narrow hallway created a revolving optical illusion like standing inside an MC Esher sketch. “I mean, we can’t have middle schoolers with vertigo, right?” She asked. “We’ll have kids throwing up all day long!” I agreed, “No…at this rate, they’ll never even make it to class.” She started to chuckle and said, “Bob is going to kill us.” Laughing now too, I said, “Well, either the tile goes or we build the school nurse a much larger office.”
I thought the checkerboard tile design would look cool, and for some reason, people around there trust my judgment on such things. Me, the Admission Director. It was summer, no time for a tile-laying design task force, so I made the suggestion to our committee (of two), and the decision was made. Lucky for us, we caught the vomitrocious disaster before it made its way down every hallway and across every division of the school.
Good-natured Bob, CFO at the time, laughed at how bad it looked and agreed it had to change. The challenge was we had gobs of the tile ordered to suit a checkerboard pattern, so we were charged to find a new design that could use every tile ordered and not a single tile more.
What to do? Here’s a BRAINWAVE: call someone who knows something about tile design. Not difficult to find, she was an interior designer, a current parent at the school, AND she graciously donated her services. She gave us an attractive solution, we used all of the tiles, and for over a decade, joyful kids have played hopscotch on the way to their next class.
This is a story about lane swerving. It is an example of when people jump out of their lanes of expertise and into one where they don’t belong, usually for convenience. The problem is, this unexpected merge can shift traffic, slow things down, or cause a really bad accident.
Fortunately, my little sideswipe into interior design turned out okay. In fact, it gave us a powerful new code word that we reference even today, twelve years later, when we have a problem that we don’t have the individual or collective mastery to solve. When all the suggestions are laid out on the table and no one feels 100% sure, we stop and shout “CHECKERBOARD TILE!” It’s a metaphorical reminder to slow down, pull back into our lanes, and bring in the person or people with topic proficiency before going any further or making the decision.
No question it is tough to pull over when you have a destination and you want or need to get there fast. Yet a poor decision is a detour that takes much longer when you must correct a mistake.
This sounds simple but it is not. Choosing a tile design is microcosmic in the universe of organizational leadership and decision-making. Time and personnel constraints, departmental myopia, and a long, long list of initiatives can make the road map WAY more difficult to follow.
Here’s why: Insisting on a structure where individuals must stick to their lanes can lead to dangerous silos while allowing free form driving with no lanes or rules can lead to a management vacuum and chaos. How do you strike a balance? Here are a few ideas:
Run the “UC Scan”
This is a great diagnostic tool. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells us to “begin with the end in mind.” Understanding that all decisions must consider the impact on the whole, ask the question, “What are the unintended consequences?” and file through every stakeholder (customer) before signing off on the deal. Remember the golden rule from the book Raving Fans–“Everyone is a customer.” Consider how the decision will impact them all. While you won’t possibly please everyone, you can certainly limit the liability to the smallest degree by taking the time to consider the UC.
Understand the “Advancement Venn”
I work in advancement (marketing, recruitment, retention, and fundraising). I am not directly involved in decision-making about classroom curriculum and pedagogy, yet I see the impact of the decisions I make on “them” and the decisions “they” influence on “us.” I may stay in my lane when it comes to decisions on textbooks, but inherent to the conversation is the understanding that inclusion and excellence in the academic programs are integral to sustaining strong recruitment and retention of students. Likewise, powerful stories about teaching and learning attract the best “customers,” who in turn, help build a stronger community. A strong and happy customer base contributes to a positive (fundraising) culture which, in turn, directly impacts classroom and extra-curricular programming. And so the flywheel turns.
Decision-making matters as we understand the impact we, in our lanes, have on the other. Sometimes we have to swerve a little to assure success for the entire operation. So how do you allow swerving and avoid a big crash?
Assign a DRI
This is not a new concept, certainly not my original idea, but implemented right, the DRI is an excellent traffic cop. Directly Responsible Individual (DRI). The Person in Charge (PIC). Whatever you want to call it, before you leave the meeting, even if the meeting is in your bathroom and the topic is calling a plumber, assign a DRI.
Picture a morning meeting at your place of work. Six team members are on their third cup of coffee and they have lots to do outside the conference room. The agenda gets lost in the shuffle of this and that. Action items are said out loud, maybe written down, probably not assigned. The meeting ends, and everyone rushes out to get on with their day. The next meeting’s topic undoubtedly will be: “So what did we decide? And what was I supposed to do?” Circular conversations get you nowhere slowly.
Picture the same meeting where a DRI is assigned. DRI Checklist:
- What is the question to be decided or the action to occur?
- Why does it make sense to assign (name) as DRI?
- Who will (name) bring into the discussion to assure expertise in decision making?
- When should the action be completed?
Once the DRI gathers the information, works on the problem, and runs the UC Scan, he/she will circle back to the gang and share. The problem will be solved or a decision made on how to move forward. Efficient accountability. I love it!
Here’s the beauty of a DRI. She is allowed to swerve because it is agreed that she is the best person to work on the job. She can bring in folks from other lanes if they are the best people to help solve the problem. She isn’t going to slam into a car or pull out in front of a great big dump truck because it is her highway. She decides who gets to drive on it.
Not too long ago, I was consulting at a small business with a tiny operational budget. Inspired by the Google open floor plan, there were no offices, and everyone collaborated on everything. If I asked, “Who is the Marketing Director?” the answer was, “Well…John does X and Sheila does Y.” “Who runs advancement?” “Well…Sheila helps some there and Judy does Z.” “Who is in charge of the website and social?” “Well…we outsource a little to Mildred’s husband and John works with him too. Jesse does Instagram, Sam Facebook, and John Twitter because he likes that best.” It was a four-lane highway with no lines and no guard rails. My advice was to figure out their lanes and assign some DRIs.
There is only one line at the Subway where I go to buy my 6-inch veggie sandwich, pepper jack cheese on whole wheat with guacamole. Ironically, the floor is made of checkerboard tile, which for them works just fine. The line is usually long and slow, and I stand and wish there was a different lane for those of us who know exactly what we want. Multiple lanes make for faster travel assuming you navigate them adeptly.
Of course and finally, this construct applies to business AND life if you are geeky enough to let it. My husband is DRI of laundry and trash. I am DRI of groceries and dishes. We take turns as DRI feeding and walking the dogs though sometimes we do it together. It’s a collaborative, efficient, and peaceful strategy. Most of the time;-).