Avoiding Unproductive Leadership Tools: Don't Pour the Sidewalk Until You See the Footpath
The Sidewalk or the Footpath: Which Came 1st?
My Dad is known for repeating stories to teach my brother and me (especially as were growing up). One story (if I'm remembering correctly) was about how a university campus waited a bit before paving in the sidewalks that students were to take when walking around campus. By accident, or on purpose (I don’t know), the paving was postponed, and students did what students do around campus: they walked.
As the story goes, the campus simply used the wear-and-tear in the dirt and grass to observe where students were going to walk anyway. The university paved the sidewalks on the route of the student-formed footpaths.
True leadership is service. Service involves humility. Humility involves learning from people (especially people “subordinate” to us).
Imposing Tools to Make Things More “Efficient”
Perhaps we could gain a leadership lesson from this story (thanks for repeating it, Dad). In project management, client interactions, and organizational structures, sometimes we can learn from our coworkers’ footpaths before imposing tools, methods, and structures on them.
Have you ever tried to walk on preformed sidewalks that just don’t seem efficiently routed? People usually know how to walk from A to B in an efficient way, and that simple reality explains why sidewalks sometimes have footpaths that are worn divergent from the course of the sidewalk.
Have you ever tried to use a project management tool (software, for instance) that just doesn't seem to be efficiently routed? People may already just know how to do a project, and they wind up inputting information into the digital project management software fields to mark off yet another project on their list: “Using the Project Management Tool.”
Have you ever tried to make a business call utilizing a prescribed agenda that just doesn’t seem to be efficiently routed? People may just know how to talk to “CEO Suzie,” but things get awkward when they try to follow the client-interaction sidewalk that the company gave them.
Have you ever tried to implement an organizational structure that just doesn't seem to be efficiently routed? It looks good on the whiteboard, but intuitively people know who the leaders are among them. They know how to honor each other, and they know where, in the organization, dishonor is hurting things. Things can get awkward when the New Structure disorients the whole family.
"...1st observe the footpaths that people use, so that what they already know is incorporated into the routing of the sidewalk."
So, Ditch the Sidewalks?
So, are project management software tools, client interaction equipping, and organizational structures bad? Well... I don’t think so. That’s not the point here.
The point is sequence. Do you want to 1st build a sidewalk and then see where people increase efficiency by creating footpaths away from it, or do you want to 1st observe the footpaths that people use, so that what they already know is incorporated into the routing of the sidewalk.
I once had a construction job where we would sometimes pour concrete. Wow! Concrete work is hard, and the end result can feel pretty permanent! Have you ever worked on a project removing concrete? I have.
The Purpose of Sidewalks
Before you pour the concrete sidewalk, check to see if the places where people are already walking make a lot of sense.
A well-routed sidewalk:
Makes people’s existing routes more efficient.
Exposes people to previously unused, but more efficient routes
True leadership is service. Service involves humility. Humility involves learning from people (including people “subordinate” to us).
Kind regards from the other side of the pond!