“If you put fences around people, you get sheep.”
— William L. McKnight, (1887-1978) Former 3M CEO
McKnight’s quote is powerful. If you take away people’s freedom you kill their creative spirit. Yet, it doesn’t goes far enough in describing what great leaders do. There should be a second sentence. “If you don’t help people TEAR DOWN fences, regardless of how they got there, you also get sheep.” The truth is, fences pop up everywhere in organizations – whether a leader puts them there or not. They’re defense and control mechanisms – built by everyone. Sure, leaders have to stop building fences themselves, but more importantly they’ve got to create a culture that discourages building them at all.
In his HBR article, Good Communication that Blocks Learning, Chris Argyris tells a great story about a client who wanted to improve operations. He worked with 40 managers who identified 9 target areas to cut costs. They successfully implemented the changes with better-than-planned cost savings. Over months of interviews with these managers, 2 things struck Argyris: (1) They told him how easy it had been to identify the 9 target areas and (2) they complained that fixing them had been long overdue. The 9 target areas, it turns out, weren’t the real problem – everyone knew about them! The real problem was deeper. It was whatever dynamic was going on at this company that prevented the managers from questioning inefficiencies and getting them corrected or eliminated earlier. That’s where a leader has to dig in.
1. Take 10 minutes with your team – have everyone answer this question: The one thing I think we could be doing better, that I’ve never mentioned to the team is _____________.
2. Take another 10 minutes – have them answer this question (this one is more interesting than the first): The reason I’ve never mentioned it is ______________.
3. If you’re the leader, model both answers first. Don’t play small – make yourself vulnerable.
4. If you start knocking down fences, the people around you will follow.