Recipe 9 : get out of your ivory tower

In the last article, we talked about how difficult it can be to settle into a first management position, and how few people are prepared for the stress they’re about to face.

To handle the situation, some will stay in their offices and isolate themselves. Comfortable offices, between the coffee machine and the canteen, in which it’s tempting to stay.

It’s easy to spend time answering emails, preparing powerpoints, establishing strategies and doing all the things that will make us look good in front of higher management.  We become very productive, active and visible to impress management.

Except that…

By not going to see what happens in real life, we forget. We come up with beautiful theories, that look great on paper, but are completely impossible to implement in real life.

The human parameter disappeared from the strategy. These infamous people don’t always react as anticipated in the strategy. They have different cultures depending on the country of origin, different life experiences, and annoyingly tend to act differently than predicted by statistics.

In the designer world, it’s the difference between what they call design and user experience. A lot of energy and money is spent to gather user feedback, because it’s the only way to guarantee product success.

As a manager, there’s no need to spend a massive amount of money on consumer behavior studies or to read hundreds of pages of studies written by specialized cabinets. No, none of that. There’s a method which is a lot simpler and consists of leaving your office to visit plants. Spending time with people who work on the field and finding out what motivates them is the best way to test your ideas and see if they’ll be successful.

The problem with the ivory tower is that we end up believing that our strategy is optimal, because we spent a lot of time working on it, defending it in front of high management, and doing nice powerpoints with pretty colors, ultimately convincing ourselves that we hold THE only truth. However, we don’t know if it would pass the user test, and that’s often how we build a wall of incomprehension between those who determine the strategies, and those who are in charge of implementing them.

In my current Health and Safety position, I see it every day. The trap to avoid is the infamous “tick the box syndrome”. A project is beautiful and convincing, but completely inadequate with the operational needs, and difficult to implement. Employees will then very quickly find a way to work around it. The probability that this doesn’t happen is directly correlated to the time spent on site. The photo illustrating this article shows it very clearly. It’s almost impossible, and very much unproductive, to force a user to take a path we designed if there’s a more practical one. The question should rather be: why would we want to enforce this path and not the more logical and fitted one, while obtaining the same result – if not a better one. Often, the answer doesn’t exist, because it doesn’t come from a place of purposeful harm, but rather from incomprehension as a result of a lack of communications between operational people and decision-makers…who forgot to get out of their offices!

To conclude, if you don’t get out of your ivory tower for the reasons mentioned above, do it at least to oxygenate your brain, to search for new ideas and to make connections with people in real life. We quickly start liking these trips, with people who often go out of their way to welcome you, happy to finally be able to exchange with corporate. So… Dare to do it!

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