Heed the Early Warnings

by Linda Henman, Ph.D.

Sunday I attended my grandson’s baseball game where my three-year-old granddaughter found the one and only mud puddle in the park, apparently put there for her Mud Puddleamusement.  Since her parents were coaching the game, I took on the responsibility of warning her to get away from it. She ignored me until the third warning: “Julie Diane, don’t make me come down there.” A father sitting nearby commented, “Wow! Middle name and the ‘don’t make me come down there threat.’”

Julie engendered the more pointed warning because she disregarded the early ones, as business leaders often do, especially when crises start small. By the time they figure things out, the crisis has grown to the point that containing it becomes impossible. The threats will take many forms, depending on the nature of your business, but if you’re alert to these, you will recognize problems before they become disasters:

  • Persistent customer complaints
  • Persistent employee complaints
  • A preponderance of rumors
  • High potentials leaving the organization
  • No one ready for promotion
  • Significant changes in technology
  • Internal or external resistance to innovation

You may wonder how a reasonably bright executive could overlook any one of these. Easy. Never underestimate the appeal of inertia. Doing nothing becomes the default position for many leaders, especially the ones with hubris—or excessive pride. Self-satisfaction and a perception of invulnerability blind leaders to the signs of imminent peril. They ignore the rumors, make excuses for their high potentials leaving, and overlook complaints.

Turning this sort of blind eye also causes leaders to minimize the scope of the problem and to fail to discern patterns. The breakdown in the mortgage and banking industries of 2009 provides one of the most dramatic and far-reaching examples of the consequences of overlooking warning signs. Of course, we should probably factor in greed at some point—no small contributor to this debacle either.

If you fail to connect the dots or heed the warnings, somebody will have to come down there.

If you found these tips from Linda Henman, Ph.D. of value and are a PMP looking to earn PMI PDUs, you might be interested in her self-paced, downloadable courses at PDUs2Go.com.


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