Cogs – Where the Hard Stuff & Soft Stuff Meet

When it comes to leading a team, it can be hard to figure out what to prioritise.  The bottom line tells us we should prioritise processes, profits, the facts and deadlines of any given situation.  After all, these are the tangibles that drive us on a daily basis, that we measure our success in business by, and that allow us to maintain the roof over our heads and the security of our team. 

On a daily basis though, we spend much time fire-fighting.  There’s always something that comes up and the odd spanner in the works is par for the course.  However, if you’re repetitively fighting the same fires, you may need to prioritise something entirely different.

There are three parts to any operation that must work efficiently together – people, equipment and systems.  Snags may come up with any of these three, and we’re used to juggling.  However, there is one of the three without which the other two lie idle.  People.  No matter how fabulous your equipment and systems may be, if your people aren’t in prime condition to make use of them then you can’t win no matter how incredible your strategy.

Snags with people cause us more stress as leaders than any system or piece of equipment.  People are often harder to prioritise because it’s hard to know how to handle them – they represent the variables, the unknowns.  Systems, equipment and deadlines are relatively black and white, defined and easy to control.  People, on the other hand, are a myriad of things…..and getting them all to pull in the same direction whilst making use of their full strengths is the hardest job you’ll ever face as a leader.

A few weeks back during a conversation with a fellow pilot friend, I was asked who taught me to lead.  We both acknowledged that, regardless of the intense training on technical skill and procedures that we’ve all received, captaining aircraft and crew and making command decisions when machines, lives, finances and reputations are on the line is a growth journey in itself.  We developed our skills by watching others, analysing what worked and what didn’t, what we approved of and what we didn’t, and through trial and error.

Who taught you to lead?  If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ve had a mentor.  Perhaps you’ve obtained an MBA or other kind of education that featured leadership skills.  Regardless of where you got your “information”, the majority of us learned to lead the hard way – by trial and error.  This means that none of us are strangers to the complexities of human kind, their varying needs, perspectives, skills, temperaments, experiences and everything else that comes together to make us uniquely human.  It also follows that each of your team members are learning and growing the exact same way.

In aviation, whole topics are dedicated to the study and management of Human Factors.  In aircraft operation, it remains one of the most unpredictable variables and yet, our humanness is indispensable in a cockpit.  Our ability to see the whole picture, evaluate it and act is still unsurpassed by any other system man has produced thus far.  Our ability to sift through our thinking and come up with Plan C when needed.  Suffice to say, our humanness is both our biggest virtue and our biggest “snag” – no less so in business than in the cockpit.

There is a balance to be struck in leadership when it comes to where we focus our input.  It’s not enough to focus on the hard lines and drive forward without consideration for the intricacies of our teams.  Their intricacies are what make each team powerful.  It’s also not enough to focus on the people alone and ignore the hard lines that deliver at the end of the day.  Neither approach can be successful alone.

What is difficult is deciding where the balance is and understanding why it needs to be there.  The more fires you’re fighting and the more pressure you’re under, the more our humanness will push us towards the hard lines we can control and away from the people we can’t.  There needs to be a check point somewhere, before the balance tips towards discord.

Here’s a constructive way to picture the balance and reasoning between the hard stuff and the soft stuff and understand the imperative need for both:

Cogs, Sand and Grease

Cogs, or gears fit together with many interlocking teeth.  These teeth transfer the movement of one cog to the next and so on.  Cogs allow us to drive different parts of a construction in different directions and at different speeds.  Think of the inside workings of a clock, or a car gearbox.

Picture your business as the central cog and the members of your team (perhaps your HODs) as the smaller cogs that fit around the edge of that central cog.  Of primal importance is making sure you have the right cogs in the right spaces and that they all fit snugly together.  Off of each main team member are a couple of smaller cogs (members of their departments), and then still more off of those (some family members and so forth). 

If you have no grease in your system, or worse still, you have a handful of sand over those cogs – the energy required to turn the central cog is going to be immense, if it turns at all.  There will be grinding and grating and the whole experience will be laborious and painful – much like the inner workings of many teams.

Our job as leaders is to first identify and remove the sand.  Remove the issues that stand in the way of our team members doing their best job.  Ask them what stands in their way and what snags them up.  We must make sure they have the right equipment, enough of it, and the correct training.  We must make sure they have an environment conducive to good work.  And then, once we’ve removed the sand, we must add some grease. 

The grease ensures that the cogs can turn easily.  That central cog will take far less energy to turn when greased; it will in turn move the cogs that are locked into its teeth, and the system will start to pick up speed.  Once the momentum of the surrounding cogs picks up, the fact that they are turning will start to feed the central cog with reciprocal energy.  This momentum is hard to stop once it gets going!

Isn’t that the kind of team we all want to work in and with?  Ease of motion.  Speed and smooth operations.  No sand.  Just gliding action towards a powerful outcome.

The grease is the soft stuff.  The part that allows for our humanness.  Our team culture.  Our allowance for the fact that we’re all human with lives, strengths, weaknesses; and that we’re fallible.  The grease is what holds us together and without it, the friction can be more than our systems and people can handle.

This picture never fails to remind me of the importance of the balance between the hard stuff and the soft stuff.  They are intertwined and those businesses and teams that seem to act together effortlessly understand this.  If we don’t allow for empathy, perspective, respect, stress management, personal development, career progression etc, then we can expect our people to run dry.  Our systems will become un-greased and the slightest amount of sand may bring our cogs to a grinding halt.

When was the last time you checked your team for sand?  What methods do you use to grease your system?  How much “glide” does your team culture have, and where is there the occasional grinding of gears?  How healthy are your team, how focused on clear thinking, new ideas and growth?  Is your team stagnating – have you done an energy test?  Your team needs maintenance the same way that your car does – and skipping that maintenance can be expensive in the long run.

by Christen Killick

June 3rd, 2019

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