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Covid and a New Normal

It has been two years since we were hit with what we know as COVID. I have experienced new territory as a leader. Change is in the wind… major change. Our organization endured a plateau in growth and some team members moved on. It forced our leaders to examine ourselves in fresh ways.

We have looked at creating new departments and are making changes in structure and reorganizing. We believe this will give us a surge of growth—but it comes with a price tag. It takes work, listening, speaking from the heart, and more. One of the very first things it requires is an honest look at the normalization of defects. This normalization happens enough under any circumstance, but the stress of the COVID situation has made it worse.

Every organization (including schools, sports teams, churches, and businesses) experience the normalization of defects. You end up failing to create efficient and effective systems because circumstances push you to grabble together temporary solutions. Then you get used to them and never do it right. Think about your own life. Things may go wrong with your car. The trunk door has to be lifted just right in order to open and close. But it works okay for now and you just get used to putting up with it. You never make the necessary change.

In our organizations, we need to make sure that we are talking about the defects in our systems that we put up with because our temporary systems seem doable. We still feel successful. The negative impact is tolerable, or the cost-benefit is acceptable.

We all know about the tragic explosions of the space shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) and the deaths of all crew members in both accidents. NASA’s investigations into both explosions uncovered problems that had been known for a very long time in the space shuttle program, ranging from faulty O-ring seals to foam insulation falling off during launches. These defects were widely known and expected to occur. NASA accepted these defects as part of the process. Questions were raised but they lacked the disciplined attention necessary to fix it. This has become known as the “normalization of defects.”

In 2019, Roger Hain of Serviam Partners wrote about this, and his insights are even more applicable now. A problem or defect may be observed so often that it fails to generate appropriate questions and the desire to change it becomes diluted. Because it is normal to expect the problem, questions go unasked, and the problem is accepted as “the way we do things.” If an organization can list normal problems, it is guilty of normalizing defects. This limits team and individual ability to thrive and prosper.

Hain lists six of the most common normalized defects:

  • Lack of candor, which results in an overly nice and political approach to conversations and dilutes or avoids the difficult truth that needs shared.

  • Lack of accountability for results. Leaders accept squishy timelines and vague commitments instead of clear deadlines with specific and measurable deliveries. Sometimes it shows up in having favorites, when poor performance is sometimes overlooked or tolerated because of the relationship.

  • Lack of time. Unchecked busyness and a packed meeting calendar negatively impacts the ability to think strategically, be creative, invest in developing people, and also contributes to burnout.

  • Silos exist everywhere in companies. They are obstacles to collaboration, impact communication, and contribute significantly to organizational dysfunction. Often, a significant contributor to silos is the failure of leaders and their teams to develop effective and collaborative business relationships across their organization.

  • Ignoring the necessity of critical feedback. Effective leaders should seek out honest, specific, and critical feedback on their personal performance on an ongoing basis. They also have the responsibility to create a safe environment for team members to share this feedback. When done consistently and well, this will increase overall effectiveness.

  • Bad behavior of top performers is ignored. The tolerance of poor behavior or ignoring progress for team members who deliver strong results undermines morale and long-term growth.

If you are a leader with a genuine desire to make changes, Hains suggests these practical actions to get started:

1. Practice Honest Self-Reflection. Look in the mirror. Reflect on your own behaviors and those of your team and greater organization. Where are the normalized defects? What defects can you address that are within your control?

2. Ask the Team. Bring the topic of defects up in one-on-one sessions, team meetings and even town halls. Make it safe for individuals to state what they think is broken or defective in your organization and thank them for their candid feedback. Never shoot the messenger!

3. Prioritize. In addition to being patient, it is more important to prioritize and address the urgent defects in bite-sized chunks. Make this priority list an ongoing agenda item for all conversations going forward until the defects are addressed.

4. Look for Obvious Clues. Dive deeper and investigate when you hear comments like the following:

“That is just the way we have always done things here.”

“Keep that stuff to yourself. We don’t want to hear anything negative.”

“Mike has always been really hard and critical. That’s just his style.”

“We can’t ever get the information we need from Cathy.”

“The project team missed the deadline again, but they are really busy.”

“I know what Janet did was wrong, but we can’t afford to lose her.”

5. Be courageous. Uprooting defects, our own and those of the organization, will not be easy. We will encounter resistance because nobody likes to hear they made mistakes or they are negatively affecting themselves, their team, and the organization. We must have courage to be self-reflective and engage in honest conversations about what defects we have allowed to become normalized and root them out. Not doing so means we, our teams, and our organizations will continue to fall short of our potential and even court disaster. Encourage the dialogue to begin and let’s get started.

What system or process do you currently have in place that feels clunky and inefficient? Might there be a better way to reach your goal? Do you ever consider the defects which have become “normalized” in your organization? What bad habits have you accepted as a normal way of doing business that you know are wrong? What toxic behaviors have you tolerated and allowed to negatively influence your teams or the overall company culture. We can manage and control them if we have the courage to confront and correct them.

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