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My favorite commercial of all time is from Staples. A father is dancing happily down the aisles as he loads the cart with tons of supplies for his children for the upcoming school year. The piece captures both the joy and relief of the parent and the contempt and disdain of the children. Pure genius!
I must admit, it brings a smile to my face each and every time I see it, because Staples has managed to capture all my emotions of back-to-school shopping in a succinct 30-second video.
Like most consumers, I watch that example portrayed in the commercial and mimic it as I walk through the store gathering supplies for my own child in preparation for the first day of school. I get pencils, paper, staplers, staples, pencil sharpeners, crayons, colored pencils, markers, black pens, blue pens, red pens, yellow highlighters, orange highlighters, green highlighters, two-pocket folders, two-pocket prong folders, half-inch notebooks, 1-inch notebooks, spiral notebooks in each color, composition books, protractors, rulers, calculators, large pink erasers, Post-It notes, hand sanitizers, three boxes of tissues, a book bag, a lunchbox, and an iPad or laptop (if the old one has gone out to pasture). I leave with an enormous bill that undoubtedly I will regret in the near future, but I still have the feeling of satisfaction because I got my kid all the supplies they could ever need in order to prepare them for their academic studies for the upcoming school year. I pat myself on the back and secretly congratulate myself because I have removed all excuses in what I believe would hinder my child’s success.p>
But there is one fallacy with my over confident theory. I am putting all my reliance on my child’s success on the utilization of tools. I am drawing a direct correlation that if they have an array of tools at their disposable then they will be successful in school. (And I define success as comprehending the material, learning something new, and frankly, getting good grades.) But while those tools can definitely help support those areas to promote success, none of the tools are absolutely necessary in their success. Success will only come from the habits that they establish and execute on a regular basis, not the tools.
Now looking at this example, it seems so simplistic in nature and obvious to the average parent. But how many times have we done this exact same thing in our organizations? We have a vendor (Staples), who comes in with a dog and pony show (the commercial), to show all the capabilities that are possible when using their tools (pencil, paper, stapler, protractor, etc). We get excited with aspirations of grandeur. We start fantasizing about who will be using these new tools, and what great reports will come out of these new tools, and how cross-team communication will improve using these new tools. But in this fantasy, we make two simple assumptions: first, that we are going to use all the capabilities that the tool has to offer and second, the people in organization have the discipline already in place that will allow for the tools to be an aid in improvement rather than a hindrance. And when our dreams fall short of the unrealistic expectations that we put on tools, we get back to the drawing board and find a new tool and repeat the cycle.
Somehow, we as leaders have diverted our attention to solving the symptom and ignoring the problem. I have struggled with this myself as a leader. It is easier to think a new tool will come in and help two team members collaborate more effectively when in reality the issue lies in their means of communication. It is easier to think a tool will help produce amazing reports on performance rather than evaluate how we collect the data. It is easier to think a resource management tool will highlight deficiencies in staffing instead of qualitatively assessing the problem by being more hands on with the team.
One lesson that I learned in preparing my child for school was to over-communicate my expectations and the primary objective of school. I wanted them to use the supplies that I bought them. But if they believed that those supplies were hindering them from obtaining the primary objective, they had the option to not use them. Because the main goal is to get good grades. That could be accomplished with or without the laundry list of supplies.
I have applied that same rationale to various organizations that I have led. The main goal needs to be accomplished irrespective of the tool used. We need to rely more on the core competence and knowledge of the team and less on the reliability of tools. Once we transition our focus, it will be a lot easier to start solving the true issue instead of addressing the symptom.
Dr. Alma Miller is an enthusiastic entrepreneur, speaker, and educator with more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Catholic University, a Masters in Electrical Engineering from George Washington University, a Masters in Technical Management from Johns Hopkins University, and a Doctorate in Engineering from George Washington University. Dr. Miller considers herself a relationship counselor between development and IT operations teams. Her consulting company, AC Miller Consulting , provides services to government and commercial clients across multiple industries. Dr. Miller speaks at industry conferences and events and teaches graduate courses for Johns Hopkins and University of California Irvine. Connect with her on LinkedIn to continue the conversation.