We Don't Need Another Hero

Audio Version

From a very young age, we in the West we are trained with movies, books, and graphic novels to thrill to the appearance of the hero, there to swoop in and right wrongs. In business, however, the need for a hero is a management failure.

We have all worked with the type: that person you can go to when things are falling apart who can come in, mumble to themselves for a bit, and then fix the problem that has had you stymied. We all love people like that, don’t we?

While it is good that such people exist, your business shouldn’t depend on their existence for its daily survival. In fact, with a certain point of view, needing a hero is a failure of management.

How so? If we go back to the core reason for management, it exists to provide systems and support to the people who actually generate the value of the organization, the individual contributors. Modern management is all about creating a stable environment where workers can be efficient and effective at what they do best. Managers need to provide systems and processes that are stable through time. It is hard for a front-line worker to do much about, say, efficiency if the process is so chaotic that every day is spent trying to make it work at all.

If you need a hero to save your business, you should ask yourself as a manager, “What is it that we didn’t know or didn’t do?” so that you can prevent that in the future.

Managers are probably the only ones that can do anything to prevent such occurrences in the future. Or, ideally, work every day to prevent such occurrences from ever happening in the first place.

Which is where we run into the second problem – heroes are easy to revere and to reward. It is really obvious when Mary can come in, point to the problem, and everybody can breathe again, and we do (and should) reward Mary for her abilities. But what about those managers that do the hard work of Daily Management that monitors, controls, and improves the process all the time? If they do that work well, there will never be a need for a hero riding on a white horse in shining armor to avert disaster. These managers avert disaster every single day. Upper management may never even know that manager has prevented something that would have eventually threatened the existence of the company.

How do we reward such people? Well, there are some statistical techniques that we can use to compare problems before and after implementing daily management, and indeed, each daily management team should keep a record of their estimates of the effect that their improvements have had. But a lot of the benefit really is, in the words of Lloyd Nelson, “unknown and unknowable.”

Upper management should reward front-line managers for being good managers, that is to reward them for implementing solid day-to-day management systems. And reward them without needing a dangerous event for such recognition. We need to start viewing an area that needs a hero as an opportunity to learn how to be a better manager and prevent that need from ever occurring again.

After all, avoiding problems is always better (and cheaper) than having to solve them.



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