Don’t Drop It!

Lean manufacturing experts have long been using an upside-down pyramid to draw their org charts. I have always liked this view as it symbolizes how the most important people in the organization – those at the top – are the line workers, carried by the leader at the bottom. 

Sometimes it can feel as if – as leaders – we are holding that inverted pyramid with just a thin stick, like a juggler would hold a spinning plate. Not an easy thing to do! The slightest mistake, and the plate comes crashing down in front of us.  

The difference to a plate juggler, though, is that the pyramid is not just made of plastic. In organizations, this pyramid is really made of its people, culture, mission, values, strategy, policies, processes and so much more. Like it or not: All of the good and the not-so-good things are in there. Feeling the pressure, yet? 

Once I picture myself balancing this "pyramid", a few things become clear:  

1. You need something that keeps it all together

No matter how you structure your pyramid (which processes, systems, priorities, culture etc), trust is the glue that keeps it all together. Trust is the most fundamental part of your organization’s health. You need your pyramid to be as compact as possible, and the more glue (trust) you have to keep the components from shifting against each other, the better. 

Lesson: Always seek the truth and build trust in your organization. There are many ways to build trust. One great way is to give people a voice when making decisions that impact them!

2. Alignment about Direction 

As any decent juggler will tell you, if you want to move that spinning plate above your head in a new direction, you need to adjust your own movements to those of the plate, first. So, if the plate is moving to the right, and you want to move it to the left, you first need to bring yourself to the right of the plate in order to slow it down and to eventually move it left. If you don't, you will lose balance and the plate will fall. 

Similarly, if you try to move your organization in a new direction without alignment, the pyramid will tip and fall. Alignment doesn’t mean everyone does what the leader says. It means everyone is on the same page.  

Lesson: On strategic changes, build broad support in your organization. Address those who are impatient, those who worry, and those who resist. No, its not a vote, but by getting greater acceptance in your team, your decisions will ultimately be more effective. Communicate, communicate, and communicate.   

3. Getting Whacked

Sometimes when you juggle plates, someone comes along and whacks your stick from the side. It may just be some good-natured fun, but you end up having to recover. 

In business, not every directional change can be well-thought out, strategized and debated. Sometimes in business, too, you get “whacked” - as Jack and Suzy Welch put it in “The Real-Life MBA.” Getting whacked can come in different forms: a new competitor, and vendor who goes out of business, a recession, a natural disaster.  

To recover, you may need to change direction quickly, and your ability to recover may not hinge on alignment in your organization: It may be all about capabilities. Is your organization capable of moving quickly, and of adapting to the new demands? Are your processes and systems flexible enough? Is the culture in your company allowing mutual support of teammates, or do people stay in silos, protecting their own turf?  

If the people in your organization are willing but not able to move quickly enough, your pyramid will undoubtedly fall after being whacked. 

Lesson: Use any opportunity to build and grow your organization’s capabilities. Employees will thank you for it, and you will thank them for being able to take on new challenges when you need them too. Quickly. 

Lastly, what I like most about the "upside down pyramid" is that it shows so well the weight of responsibility that lies on the shoulder of the leader. The people "above" you rely on you to do a good job. They rely on you with their dreams and with their livelihoods. You owe it to them to keep the pyramid in balance: relentlessly build trust, ensure alignment, and build your team's capabilities.