Bananas & Ladders

Most people start to think in a creative way when they have a concrete problem. The logical way is not working anymore and things have to change in order to solve the challenge.

Eg: a banana peel on the floor.

This banana peel could be dangerous because somebody might slip on the banana peel. What happens in a lot of organisations: a special management meeting, hiring a few expensive consultants and a few months later they come with a report of 270 pages and the solution is: a ladder.

They place the ladder over the banana peel and it works! Nobody is slipping on the banana peel. It’s not an easy solution (certainly in the beginning) because it’s hard work to climb the ladder but it works so the management team decides that the ladder is a new guideline; a rule; the way of working within the company. In the beginning, people have some resistance but don’t dare to say anything and after a while everybody within the company accepts the ladder and they follow the path. The more often they climb the ladder, the easier it gets and after a while, they don’t even have to think about it.

But in the long run, most ladders are not efficient.

The world isn’t a place that’s standing still … New competitors appear; clients demand more and more; technology becomes better and what happens … the ladder becomes a bottle neck. Chances are quite big that after a few weeks , the banana peel has rotten away but the ladder is still there. And nobody dares to say something about it because the ladder has become part of the culture and the daily patterns. It even happens that some ladders exists for years in an organisation and nobody knows why they are climbing those ladders.

Most ‘ladders’ are based on controlling symptoms instead of focusing on the real cause. Dare to allow a bit more time to explore more ideas (maybe in different organisations or industries) how you could solve the real problem in an elegant way – limiting the amount of negative elements of climbing the ladder.

Fear of mistakes causes an excessive focus on control without thinking about the cost of control. Is it worth to change a whole system or come up with a new procedure to avoid an occasional mistake? Is it worth coming up with again a new rule or guideline that everybody has to follow instead of letting go and trusting that 99% of the people will take the right path?

A few examples of ‘inefficient ladders’

+ In a large organisation, they were scared that employees might be watching youtube movies during their work hours so the IT department blocked all youtube movies. Together with some colleagues, I was facilitating a change process with 40 team-leaders from all over Europe in that company. In our approach, we use a lot of different methods to inspire people and let them experience certain skills. And one of those methods is showing a short, funny youtube movie to deliver the message in a different way. But of course, these people (all high level) couldn’t get access to those movies and we had to go through quite some trouble convincing the IT department that it was important that those people had access to youtube. We did it and the participants could watch the youtube movies but two days after the project ended, we got a mail from one of the participants to announce that the ‘very exclusive right’ was taken away again πŸ˜‰ Imagine how much trouble (energy, costs, motivation, …) is done to block people from a common tool like youtube.

+ I had to deliver a presentation for a local government but the lockers with access to the projector + sound-system were closed and only somebody from facility management could open that locker. Together with 2 employees from the organisation, it took us 10 minutes to get a very stressed facility manager in the room to open the locker (stress was caused by the fact that several meetings started at the same moment so that guy had been running from one meeting room to the other). But the trouble wasn’t over because I’m using a Macbook and that appeared to be ‘big’ problem because I should have announced that a few days before. Main reason was that they had a procedure to arrange the right cable but I’m always carrying a MiniDisplayPort to connect the projector cable to my laptop. But he didn’t want to use that one because it could ‘harm’ the settings. Don’t ask me why because I have already used it more than 500 times and it always goes right. So we had to wait until he had to run to another ‘urgency’ and then we just connected my laptop & the projector and everything worked fine. But it was a nice example of his ‘ladder’-requirements.

Nice ‘ladder’-example from Harvard Business Review (Freek Vermeulen)

The author worked a decade ago I worked with a large British newspaper company, I asked why their papers were so big. Their answer was β€œall quality newspapers are big; customers would not want it any other way.” A few years later, a rival company – the Independent – halved the size of its newspaper, and saw a surge in circulation. Subsequently, many competitors followed, to similar effect. Yes, customers did want it. Later, I found out that the practice of large newspapers had begun in London, in 1712, because the English government started taxing newspapers by the number of pages they printed β€” the publishers responded by printing their stories on so-called broadsheets to minimize the number of sheets required.Β  This tax law was abolished in 1855 but newspapers just continued printing on the impractically large sheets of paper.

Full article in HBR

+ Most ‘ladders’ have something to do with control. Somebody wants to control a certain process where something can go wrong and they take preliminary actions to make sure that it can’t go wrong. But in many cases, they forget to take in account the costs, time, energy it takes to follow the rules and guidelines towards the advantages of the controlling mechanism. Sometimes it’s better to allow 1 or 2 exceptional ‘mistakes’ instead of trying to control a whole organisation. People will find shortcuts anyway.

+ And if you want to read another nice ‘ladder-story’, you can read this blog ‘Sorry, it doesn’t fit in the system‘.

How can you remove inefficient ladders?

+ Be aware that employees who work less than 100 days (around 3 months) in your organisation are worth gold because they still recognize ladders because they haven’t become part of their daily habit. So listen (or even better create a ‘formal’ process) to gather information from newbies about the ‘weird’ habits in the organisation. They are perfect ladder-spotters.

+ Allow yourself to take some distance and time to look at the different processes in your organisation. Dare to ask a lot of questions why you are doing the things that you’re doing. Is a certain flow of actions still the most effective & efficient way? Are the advantages of a certain rule still bigger than the disadvantages (not only in terms of budget but also taking in account the mental energy & time that people spend on that activity)?

+ Start with an expiration date for rules. Expiration dates are very common in the food-business. People check if the date is still valid to decide if you can still use the product or not. It could be very interesting to start with a similar decision process for rules. Every new rule or guideline has an expiration date of a year (or max 5 years) and after that period you evaluate that rule. Still valid, then you keep the rule and otherwise, get rid of the ‘ladder’.

+ Do a short brainstorming session around a process that’s not efficient anymore. How can you solve that challenge? Look for new ideas in different industries. Challenge the assumptions of that process … what would happen if? Changes are big that you might find some ideas that are more efficient and elegant that the solution that’s installed right now.

+ And be aware that some people are very close connected to a certain ladder. If you start to doubt the significance of those ladders, you’re doubting their right to exist and ego and might find a lot of resistance. So make sure that you check in advance who’s ‘responsible’ for a ladder and start working with those people if you can get them on board to change the ‘ladder’ into something that’s also valuable for them.

2018-09-15T08:15:08+00:00 Categories: Creativity, Examples|Tags: , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Bananas & Ladders