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The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 46 :: Culture :: Confront the Brutal Facts

In 1546, English author John Heywood wrote, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” The formative years of my working life were spent in a declining industry. The descent was steep, but it became a lot steeper because people leading the organization failed to confront the brutal facts – in our particular case, the commercial use of the internet. As revenues declined, there was a lot of “whistling through the graveyard”. Revenue was going directly to online competitors. Our “creative destruction” in response to the new online world looked more like repainting the bathroom instead of tearing down the house.  In the late 1990s, I wrote a capital request for the purchase of a new management information system. The proposal included adding capabilities that leveraged our address specific data with address specific data from area utilities and presenting them together in an online portal. I proposed selling address-specific online billing services (we would have been the first) and selling the data to companies with an interest in address-specific information (realtors, home services). I was told to take that section out of my capital request because we didn’t need it.

In my opening quote, Heywood wasn’t disparaging those who couldn’t see, but those who wouldn’t see.

In his 2011 book, Good to Great, Jim Collins encouraged business leaders to confront the brutal facts. Since I began consulting in 2006, it’s been my unfortunate discovery that running from the truth is a common practice in many organizations. We know we should fire that disruptive employee. We know we should find a new vendor to replace that underperforming one. We know we should abandon that underperforming product or location, but we have an emotional attachment to it. But in every case, we don’t.

In week 26 of the One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge, I listed my Cultural Imperatives. Confronting the brutal facts is one of them. Just like Mentor Mindset in week 4 and Lifelong Learning in week 16, Confronting the Brutal Facts deserves its own One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge.

So how do you create an organization that actively pursues the truth and has the organizational fortitude to act on it? In this week’s exercise, I want you to critique your organization. I want you to look for truth-hiding behavior, check for practices that proactively unearth unpleasant truths, root out people not committed to radical transparency, and create or strengthen organizational backbone that acts based on the true picture the facts paint.

Let’s jump in –

Truth Hiding Behaviors

  • You’ve rebuffed a peer or subordinate telling them, “Don’t bring me problems, only bring me solutions.” Maybe they don’t have a solution and since they don’t, they fail to pass along information that is vital to the future of your organization.
  • You spot a new competitor, but discount them because you think the management of the company is weak or the initial product or service is subpar. Managers can grow and products can evolve. Better to take the threat seriously and ask, “Why did they think there was room in my space for a new entrant? What is deficient in my product or delivery that makes them think there is opportunity?”
  • You get negative feedback from an unreliable source (less-than-stellar employee, always-complaining customer, or new, unproven vendor). Go ahead and explore their feedback. As my former boss used to say, “Even a wild boar finds a hickory nut every now and then.”
  • A problem keeps surfacing and a peer or subordinate suggests that you’re the cause (your style, time management, lack of planning). You’ve discounted that feedback because you’ve successfully run the business for a number of years.

 

Unearthing Unpleasant Truths

  • Make sure bad news can easily travel up and down in your organization. Make sure there are no reprisals for “truth tellers.” As a matter of fact, recognize their efforts in getting all the facts on the table.
  • Proactively ask for feedback from employees, customers, and suppliers. Make phone calls and send surveys. Take the totality of the feedback to make a balanced, accurate picture of what it’s like to work at your company, purchase products or services from your company or sell to your company.
  • Engage the services of a third party who can bring a fresh perspective. Maybe a consultant, an advisory board or business-owner peer from a networking group.
  • Trust the data over your gut. Twenty years of experience can make you think you’re invincible. Twenty years of connection can also make you emotionally tied to a person, place, or thing that needs to go.

 

Root out People Not Committed to Radical Transparency

  • Commit first and foremost to the purpose of the organization. Our natural inclination is to want to be right. Instead of putting a premium on being right, in your organization, put a premium on the pursuit of truth.
  • Embrace humility. As Ryan Holiday noted in Ego is the Enemy, “If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.”
  • Engage in vigorous discussions. Build trust inside your team so that you can talk to each other about failures in execution, faulty plans and blown opportunities. The momentary discomfort of discussing individual lapses must be subordinate to the importance of resolving nagging problems or the exploiting of looming opportunities. If a team member can’t exist in this environment, seriously consider their future in the organization.
  • Squash every form of defensive behavior. When you hear things you’d rather not hear about your organization, your product or your people, resist the temptation to defend. Instead, figure out what you can learn from the feedback and teach your team to do the same.

 

Strengthen Your Organizational Backbone

  • Adopt an execution framework that will help you put “feet” on your fact-driven initiatives. There are several good ones available. I like The 4 Disciplines of Execution, EOS, and I have my own, The Business Framework.
  • Don’t let problems linger. Pursue continuous improvement. Create a bias for action.
  • Build accountability inside the organization. Hold others accountable and have others hold you accountable.

 

When you finish your critique, pull your team together for a heartfelt chat. If you’ve failed to confront the brutal facts in the past, apologize and commit to do it in the future. Prioritize radical transparency, organizational truth-telling, and fact-based decision-making. Act courageously based on the truth.

The Truth

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
-Aldous Huxley

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
– Flannery O’Connor

“It is better to disappoint people with the truth than to appease them with a lie.”
– Simon Sinek

“and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
– The Holy Bible

No one questions the value of the truth, but in our businesses we sure have a hard time nailing it down. Most of us have read Jim Collins exhortation to “confront the brutal facts,” but reaching consensus on what those facts are can be challenging. How can this be? How can something so vital be so elusive?

I’m afraid we engage in some dangerous “truth-hiding” behaviors –

  • Have you ever told a subordinate, “Don’t bring me problems, only bring me solutions”? I understand what you were after – you want that employee to think for themselves and take responsibility for their work. Great, but you might be telling them that you don’t want bad news and if they don’t have an answer for a looming problem, you’d prefer not to hear it. You’ve just shielded yourself from a bit of the truth.
  • Have you ever spotted a new competitor on the horizon, but because you knew the principals in the organization from sub-par work earlier in their career you dismissed the threat? Maybe that earlier sub-par work motivated them to pair up with new capable partners or maybe they learned from their earlier missteps and are now a formidable competitor. You’ve just dismissed some truth.
  • Have you ever received a call or email from “that customer” – the one who is never happy – and dismissed the content of their communication as more sour grapes? What if this time they’re calling with a legitimate problem about your product or service or about a real misstep by one of your employees? You’ve just ignored some truth.
  • Is there a problem that keeps resurfacing in your organization and someone (peer or subordinate) has had the nerve to suggest that part of the problem might be you (your style, your time management, your lack of planning – you fill in the blank)? You discounted their observation because you’ve successfully run your division for more than 10 years and only have this problem with one person. Maybe there’s some truth there that you’re unwilling to hear.

 

If some of these resonated with you, great. If not, create your own list of other behaviors that could be keeping you from getting to the truth in your organization. You can even share them at the end of this post.

So, what are some positive steps we can take to make sure we’re getting a steady diet of the truth in our organization?

  • Make sure bad news can easily travel up and down in your organization. Make sure there are no reprisals for “truth tellers.” As a matter of fact, recognize their efforts in getting all the facts on the table.
  • Proactively ask for feedback from employees, customers and suppliers. Make phone calls and send surveys. Take the totality of the feedback to make a balanced, accurate picture of what it’s like to work at your company, purchase products or services from your company or sell to your company.
  • Engage the services of a third party who can bring a fresh perspective. Maybe a consultant, an advisory board or business-owner peer from a networking group.
  • Engage in vigorous discussions. Build enough trust inside your team so that you can talk to each other about failures in execution, faulty plans and blown opportunities. Commit first and foremost to the purpose of the organization. That makes the momentary discomfort of discussing individual lapses subordinate to the importance of resolving nagging problems or the exploiting of looming opportunities.
  • Squash every form of defensive behavior. When you hear things you’d rather not hear about your organization, your product or your people, resist the temptation to defend. Instead, figure out what you can learn from the feedback and teach your team to do the same.

 

I realize that what I’m advocating is difficult. It goes against our natural inclinations to defend our work and reputation. I also realize that taking feedback without defending could look like you’re being disloyal to the company, its products or its employees. There’s a great way to deal with that, but that’s another article for another day.

For now, let’s get back to the supremely important topic of truth telling. How can you develop your team if you don’t where they struggle? How can you retain clients if you don’t know where your current performance is deficient? How can you make an accurate strategic plan if it’s based on a flawed perception of today’s reality?

I saved perhaps the saddest “truth” quote for the end. In the 1992 movie, “A Few Good Men,” Jack Nicholson’s character, during a military court proceeding, told his questioner, “You can’t handle the truth.” Whether we can’t handle it or don’t want to handle it, the result is the same. We continue to live in deluded bliss while our organization perpetually stumbles along on faulty information, never reaching its full potential.