My late father, Lewis Sutton, was a World II veteran. Like many of his generation, the things he learned and experiences he had -- from the terrors of the Battle of the Bulge to the joys of chasing French women -- profoundly shaped the course of his life. Part of what he learned was the language, funny and accurate expressions that -- although now falling out of use -- still provide lovely compact summaries of life's complexities.
I was reminded of two of my favorite sayings today by this excerpt from the new chapter in the Good Boss, Bad Boss paperback posted today at Fast Company: "When There Is No Simple Solution at Work, Learn to Embrace the Mess."
Here is part of the piece:
Good Boss, Bad Boss shows the value of checklists, of instilling predictability during scary times, and offers A.G. Lafley’s philosophy that the best managers make things “Sesame Street simple.” These and other examples demonstrate that simplicity, clarity, and repeatable steps can reduce the burdens on people, promote performance, and save money. We human beings especially love simple stories that communicate clear solutions and actions; when Conrad Hilton was on the Johnny Carson show, he pleaded with millions of Americans, “Please remember to put the shower curtain inside the tub.”
Yet there is there is a hazard to this quest: People start believing that every challenge has a clear and simple solution. Stories about past triumphs fuel this predilection. They can make life sound orderly and predictable, even though when the events unfolded, people were probably bewildered and overwhelmed much of the time. As singer Jimmy Buffett put it in his song Migration: “Some things are still a mystery to me/While others are much too clear.”
Bosses have to be prepared to deal with both circumstances. They need to search for clear solutions and simplify things when possible. But it is impossible to be a leader without facing stretches where you and your followers are overwhelmed with the complexity and uncertainty of it all. When this happens, to maintain everyone’s spirits keep them moving forward, and to sustain collective stamina, sometimes it is best to embrace the mess--at least for a while.
This challenge reminded me of two of the most famous and fun World War II expressions:
Snafu -- situation normal, all fucked-up
fubar -- fucked-up beyond all recognition
One CEO I know, also the son of a World War II veteran, uses the distinction between the two to help decide whether a "mess" requires intervention, or it is best to leave people alone for awhile to let them work through it.
He asks his team, or the group muddling through mess: "Is it a snafu or fubar situation? " He finds this to be a useful diagnostic question because, if it is just usual normal level confusion, error, and angst that is endemic to uncertain and creative work, then it is best to leave people alone and let hem muddle forward. But if it is fubar, so fucked-up that real incompetence is doing real damage, the group is completely frozen by fear, good people are leaving or suffering deeply, customers are fleeing, or enduring damage is being done to a company or brand -- then it is time to intervene.
Its not a bad diagnostic, and dovetails well with another theme from Good Boss, Bad Boss -- that the best bosses are "perfectly assertive," they know how to diagnose situations to determine when to watch, evaluate, coach or criticize their followers -- versus when it is best to just get out of the way.
I would love to hear other ideas about how a boss knows when it is time to intervene versus time to "manage by getting out of the way."