ManagementSpeak: Don’t be afraid to tell me bad news.
Translation: So long as your bad news doesn’t threaten my job security.
You don’t find IS Survivalist Bill Helgren’s translation threatening, do you?

Carl Sagan told the story of the last question on a biology final exam: “You’re part of the first expedition to Mars. How would you determine if there’s any life there?”

One essay — it earned an A — went like this: “Ask the inhabitants. Even a negative answer would be significant.”

Here on Earth, the anthropologist and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl sailed a raft, the Kon Tiki, from South America to Easter Island. His goal: To demonstrate that his hypothesis regarding cultural diffusion from South America into Polynesia was possible.

Prior to Heyerdahl’s landing, archaeologists and those who play on the fringes of scientific inquiry had developed a wide variety of elaborate theories to explain how the island’s famous multi-ton stone statues came to be erected. Among the more popular: Space aliens did it, presumably as a change of pace from leaving crop circles in the English countryside.

Heyerdahl took an approach to discovering the answer that was, if anything, more daring than sailing his raft across the Pacific ocean. He asked the inhabitants, who happily demonstrated the technique their ancestors had used.

In corporate America, right now as you read these words, there are companies in trouble. The executives responsible for running them don’t know they’re in trouble, but they are.

The reason these executives don’t know their companies are in trouble is that they’ve never pondered the question of life on Mars, nor the mysteries of Easter Island. Their knowledge of the companies they lead comes from financial reports, information provided to them through the chain of command, and their memory of how things used to be when they were lower in the hierarchy and closer to the action.

Were they to ask the inhabitants — were they to talk directly to employees and customers — they would know that:

  • Recent attempts to cut the cost of raw materials have resulted in deteriorating product quality.
  • The “successful” system replacement project didn’t actually turn off the old system, which means that a third of all financial transactions are posted using unaudited ad hoc patches.
  • Following the recent offshore outsourcing effort, on-shore employees are spending a quarter of their time translating variable names and comments written in Urdu to English. They charge their time to maintenance so the outsourcing project will look more profitable.
  • Employee morale is in the sub-basement because, following the significant wage concessions by employees needed to save the company, the top executives received serious bonus packages. Employees drew the obvious conclusion — that their wage concessions were needed, not to save the company, but to fund the bonuses. (Okay, this last one didn’t require talking to the inhabitants. Even the tiniest amount of empathy would have sufficed.)

Many executives have read about the importance of “walking around.” And so they do. They walk around, exchange pleasantries with “rank and file” employees and figure they’ve taken the pulse of the company.

An observation which might or might not be relevant: In my admittedly limited and indirect experience, officers (and former officers) who use the term “rank and file” are also the ones who consider their military forces to be nameless and faceless troops who they blithely send out to be shot at for no valid tactical reason.

They are also more likely to refer to dead civilians as “collateral damage,” not as tragedies.

The officers who refer to these same people as “soldiers” or “men and women” are more likely to choose the right battles and tactics. They are also more likely to have real conversations with the men and women who do the actual fighting and know what conditions are really like on the ground.

They listen, that is, to the inhabitants.

Since we’re on the subject of military tactics, here’s a piece of wisdom that’s at least as old as Sun Tzu: The battle is always for hearts and minds.

Taking and holding land certainly matters. It just doesn’t matter as much, because if you have the hearts and minds of the men and women who fight for you, and of the civilians who live in the disputed territory, you’ll end up with the land. Without their hearts and minds, you’ll lose tomorrow the land you took today.

While the stakes are less dramatic, as an IT leader the same wisdom applies to you. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, you first need to win the hearts and minds of the men and women who have to make it happen.

They are the inhabitants. If you want their hearts and minds, talk with them.