The Oscars, Guardrails, and a Flourishing Garden


The Oscar ceremony was quite the shocker this year when the wrong movie was announced as best picture, and, as I am often want to do, I found a lesson in it for business.

We all make mistakes.  We all have times when, no matter how much we try to put systems in place or have procedures to avoid them, errors are made, and often they are made in front of an audience.  The systems and procedures we worked so hard to put in place fail us right in front of a customer.  And then what, how do our employees react and respond?  This is really the key, not the mistake, but what follows.

Think about the Oscars, Warren Beatty obviously saw a problem and didn’t know what to do so he handed the envelope to Faye Dunaway and she just went with what she saw without paying attention to the details.  This was an example of a snowball coming down a mountain picking up more potential for disaster all the way down.

How many times have you seen this in your workplace?  A customer is shipped the wrong product, an employee says the wrong thing, the customer goes ballistic and a manager is left trying to mop up the mess.  Not so unusual, in fact, you’ve probably been on both sides of this example.

But what is the lesson?  I think it’s all about making sure we train our people how to improvise and giving them enough room to make decisions in favor of the customer in the moment.  If you are a manager of front-line customer-facing employees, how have you trained them to handle things?  Have you given them any idea of how flexible your “policies” can be or are they left with only one way to go, a way that only serves to make things ugly?  Are your scripts and policies handcuffing your employees to only one solution, a solution that may be no solution at all?

Ultimately, what I am talking about is the need for flexible control.  Managers and business leaders often get so afraid of the “what ifs” that they lose sight of the fact that humans are not machines and need to be able to bend when things don’t go as planned.  As Robert Burns so aptly put it, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” and we need to give employees the room to improvise and create customer happiness even if they have to do something a bit unorthodox.

I know this strikes fear in the hearts of many a manager but how many games have been won when a player made a decision outside of the game plan when the situation warranted it?  As a business leader, you must decide how wide to make the highway before putting up guardrails.  Some businesses have a very narrow road which, much like the Oscar debacle, ends in the wrong action.  Widen the road, train and trust your team, and always remember that humans make mistakes but it’s the way they handle it that can make the garden grow or wither and die.

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