Change Agent - Issue 30

In My Humble Opinion: "Is it possible to create a 'maybe-proof' company?"

Susan Storms belongs in the salesperson Hall of Fame. One day, I sent her to Seattle to make a sales call on a very well-known company. As often happens when you're selling a new idea, there was a lot of resistance to what Storms had to offer. And as usually happens when the company that you're calling on is run by a visionary, there was a lot of confusion among the people whom Storms was meeting with. They were all worked up, trying to guess, or to second-guess, what the boss would do.

Ordinarily, a meeting like this doesn't lead to much at all. It's a wasted day. It's a sleepless night in yet another hotel room. It's $900 spent on a round-trip airplane ticket for no good reason. You just figure that it comes with the territory, and chalk it up to the usual cost of doing business.

But, as I said, Susan Storms is a great salesperson. She was so sold on our product, so sure that this potential client needed the solution that we were offering, that she refused to take "Well, maybe, but not now" for an answer.

So she reached into her briefcase and took out a sheet of paper. Then she turned to the group and said, "Folks, I'm excited about this opportunity. And I'm so sure that it's right for your company that I flew across the country to present it to you." She paused and slowly sipped her Odwalla juice. "You've heard my presentation. You know how this product could change the way you do business. If you were to decide that this isn't right for you, I would totally understand. If you were to decide that you want to go ahead with this right now, then that would be fantastic."

Then she stopped, looked the senior manager in the eye, and asked, "What would you like to do? Go forward or say no?"

And the manager repeated his weasel words: "Well, we really have to look at this more closely and run it by some people, and then we'll get back to you."

Storms knew that they'd do no such thing. She knew that they were severely limited in their "zoomwidth" — that this was a company that couldn't find a way to try new things, even if those things fell into the category of "old things slightly adjusted to take advantage of new opportunities." She knew that the manager's response was a time-honored technique in severely zoom-challenged companies, and that he was looking for a way to make her go away without really making any decisions. So she turned the paper over.

"Here's the thing," she said. "This is obviously a time-sensitive program, and if you don't commit today, then we're going to have to offer it to one of your competitors. But that could cause all kinds of trouble for all of us. I mean, what if your boss calls my boss later and wants to know why we aren't working with your company? So all I need you to do is initial this sheet of paper that says that you heard the presentation and that you decided not to take advantage of our offer." And she handed the paper to the guy from Seattle.

Now, all the paper said was that his company had listened to the idea, had decided that it wasn't interested and that it was fine to take the idea to a competitor. Simple enough. Guess what? He refused to sign it!

Saying yes was a risk. Saying no was a risk. Signing the release was a risk. In his mind, every single option meant some sort of change. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to zoom — to do the same thing as usual, only different — he saw it as a threat to his position at the company. So he did the one thing that he could do without having to take a risk: He threw Storms out of the meeting.

No, Storms didn't get the sale. And she didn't get the guy's signature either. But that's okay. Because she got the story — and she got us all a lesson about how to make change happen (or not happen) in organizations.

The acknowledgment that "no decision today" actually means "no" was a brilliant device on Storms's part. Perhaps a braver manager would have viewed this as an opportunity, rather than as a threat. There's something that dealing with change ultimately does make you confront: dishonesty. And dishonesty — intellectual dishonesty, decision-making dishonesty, not-willing-to-face-the-music dishonesty — is the greatest enemy that a company can have. We disguise it as "waiting to get more information" or "looking for more input." In fact, the real deal is that we're "not willing to look the situation in the eye and make a decision, right or wrong." And so company after company, individual after individual, people put off acknowledging what they already know, and acting on it. They don't make a decision until they have to — even if they've already made the decision in their mind, and a delay in making it official means spending more money, making mistakes, and staying up all night to catch up.

I wonder what Storms would have done if Neil Goldschmidt, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, had been sitting in that seat instead of that chicken middle manager. I've heard that while attending the University of Oregon, Goldschmidt was considering joining a fraternity. The big climax to a fraternity's rush period is the "hot box" at which members of the frat get a potential pledge into a room, surround him, and put pressure on him to join.

Goldschmidt was in a hot box. One frat brother dramatically lit a match, held it in front of Goldschmidt's face, and told him, "You've got until this match burns down to decide: Are you pledging or not?"

Goldschmidt blew out the match and left the room.

It actually took more guts for Goldschmidt to say no than to say yes. But saying either one demonstrated a level of bravery and zoom-worthiness — a kind of character and self-knowledge — that's sadly lacking at most companies.

The great managers are the ones who make changes when there isn't yet an emergency. We remember that Barry Diller invented the made-for-TV movie. Or that Bob Pittman persuaded his bosses to back that crazy MTV idea. Charles Schwab got online early, while Merrill Lynch waited until there was a stampede.

The risk-averse "Hall of Shame" is so large that it needs its own virtual campus to house all of the enshrinees. Several publishers turned down "The Bridges of Madison County" because no editor would go out on a limb and back it. IBM couldn't find a quorum that would back the idea that later became the Xerox machine. In the old days, risk-averse managers knew that they'd never get in trouble for ducking a tough decision. In fact, it might even have been the fastest ticket to a promotion: It's one sure way to keep all of the dirt off your feet. But these days, if you can't make a decision, you're out of the action. Any decision is likely to serve you and your company better than no decision. And knowing why you think what you think is the fastest way to get even more involved with the ongoing deal flow that epitomizes life in the fast-lane new economy.

Is it possible to manufacture little emergencies so that everyone in an organization has to say yes or no? Is it possible to create match-lighting decision situations, when simply sitting there inertly isn't an option? Is it possible to create a "maybe-proof" company?

Some of the best project management that I've ever seen has happened in companies that use the "red-yellow-green" system. It's based on a very simple, very visible premise: Every single person in the division of a company that's launching a major new initiative has to wear a button to work every day. Wearing a green button implies that you're on the critical path. It tells everyone that the stuff that you're doing is essential to the product's launch — that you're a priority. If you don a yellow button, you're telling your coworkers that you're on the periphery of the project, but that you have an important job nonetheless. And wearing a red button sends the signal that you have the ability to slow the project down or to take precious resources away if you choose.

When someone with a green button shows up, all bets are off. Green buttons are like the flashing lights on an ambulance, or the requests of a surgeon in an operating room: "This is a life-or-death path," green buttons say, "and you'd better have a damn good reason if you're going to slow me down." When a person wearing a yellow or red button meets up with someone wearing a green button, that person understands that it's time to make a decision: "How can I help this green button get on with the critical job?" Or, at the very minimum, "How do I get out of the way?"

Of course, people can change their button color every day, or even several times during the course of a meeting. But once you adopt the button approach to project management, several things immediately become clear: First, any company that hesitates to make people wear buttons because it's worried about hurting employees' feelings isn't really serious about the project — or about creating a culture in which decisions get made. In fact, if you duck the buttons, you'll just keep ducking other decisions. Second, folks don't like wearing red buttons: They'll work very hard to find a way to contribute so that they can wear a green button. And there are plenty of people who are totally delighted to wear a yellow button. Third, the CEOs, project leaders, and team leaders can quickly learn a lot about who's accomplishing what inside of a company.

Are you itching to work at a red-yellow-green company? Would it turn you on to wear a green button to work? Would it make you take an important — if painful — look at your own decision-making style if you were issued a button each day to signal your decision-making readiness?

There's a lot of focus in fast-moving startup companies. At the beginning, just about everyone wears a green button. And when a Susan Storms visits one of those companies, it's no trouble at all to get someone to sign a sheet of paper saying "No." In the heat of a startup, people know what they know. Right, wrong, or sideways, you will find no maybes there!

But pretty soon, the culture of the company starts to change. Slowly at first, and then faster and faster, the environment for looking the devil in the eye shifts. People get hired for good reason: to add value to the status quo. But then the company stops zooming and starts taking root. People freak out when you ask them to wear a red button. A red button is a threat! They can't handle the idea of a simple sheet of paper that puts them on record — on any record! Facing a lit match that makes them declare their intentions is an agonizing experience.

So here's the real question: Are you ready to maybe-proof your company? A simple yes or no will do.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is permission-marketing yahoo! at Yahoo! His most recent book is "Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends, and Friends into Customers" (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

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