Stop Digging!

Have you noticed that there are situations at work that, no matter how hard everyone seems to be trying, things just don’t seem to get any better? Maybe they even get worse the more people try to help! The sort of situation where you think…

STOP! When you’re in a hole stop digging!”
(attributed to both Dennis Healey and Warren Buffet)

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 13.16.37I’m thinking about a number of convoluted customer complaints that I’ve been involved in over the years, where we can’t seem to get to the finishing line. I’ve been wondering why does this happen? and looking for ways to break out of the cycle.

Large complex organisations tend to specialise parts of their operation, breaking up processes into sub-processes to be done by different teams, with all the incumbent need for communication and handovers, increased risk of the ‘baton’ being dropped and the loss of a single end-to-end view. This is a particular problem for large public service bureaucracies, working with customers who have complex needs which don’t fit neatly into an organisation’s functional divisions. Defined standards, automated processes and generic policies enable under-pressure service-providers to deliver a decent service to the vast majority of people, but when things go wrong, or don’t quite fit the ‘norm’, we don’t seem able to respond well. Even worse if this then leads to a customer complaint, which typically elicits a defensive response: focussing on why it happened; why it’s a funding/policy/regulatory issue; finding fault, rather than finding a solution.

I think there’s a version of the 80:20 rule that applies here – The standard rules and processes will work just fine for about 80% of customer requirements. But people are complex and in about 20% cases, their needs don’t fit so easily. For most of these, a bit more effort, a bit of flexibility, and we can get there, if not first time, then second or third time around. BUT, there’s a sticky 1% or so, where we keep on trying and failing. The customer gets more and more frustrated; the staff doing their best become demoralised and defensive; communications break down; and, we now have conditions which mitigate against achieving anything.

So, what’s Going On?

The common features of this phenomenon seem to be:

  • fragmented processes and diffuse responsibilities, so no one person owns the problem or solution
  • inflexible rules, uncertain discretion and lack of decision-making authority
  • a desire for fairness, which is equated to treating everyone as the same, and reluctance to find alternatives
  • escalation up the management hierarchy, which consumes time dealing with a complaint rather than the customer
  • fear of being blamed, coupled with a tendency to blame others, and hiding behind “the policy”
  • the customer becomes ‘the problem’
  • initially enthusiastic staff eventually lose belief and commitment to finding a solution

How to Break Out of the Vicious Circle?

1. Firstly, we need to recognise if and when the ‘tipping point’ has been reached, and STOP going round and round the cycle.

Doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity”

attributed to Einstein

2. However tempting, resist escalating the problem up the management hierarchy – they know less about the customer, the processes, the history of the case and, in finding out, they will consume even more time of the staff who are trying to resolve the issue. What they do have however, is decision-making authority (real, or perceived) – the ability to agree to stepping outside the norm, finding extra money, varying policy, doing something different in order to reach a solution.

3. So instead, use this position power to give the authority back to the one or two individuals whose job this actually is – to use their knowledge and expertise, with permission to be creative and flexible, to see this through to the end. This will no doubt mean working with colleagues in other teams, but it should be clear who is the lead. Everyone else, however well-intentioned, should butt out!

4. Recognise that rigid adherence to a system that’s not working will consume disproportionately more time and resources than   offering an alternative. Get over the idea that “it’s not fair”! be comfortable with the fact that this actually preserves resources for everyone’s benefit. Wasting money going no-where helps no-one.

5. I’ve also learned that (rather counter-intuitively) giving carte blanche does not give front-line staff confidence in their freedom to act. It is actually helpful to set some boundaries, maybe a spend limit, that they can operate within to find effective solutions. Defining the scope and offering guidance must not drift into telling them what to do, though. The aim is to hand back control, so they can gain, and learn from, the experience and become more effective problem-solvers.

6. And, of course, keep a positive attitude to the customer. It’s not their fault that their individual needs don’t fit our standardised way of doing things. They may become frustrated, disillusioned and make complaints – so re-engage, in person, understand what matters most to them. Even if we can’t do exactly what they originally asked for, be prepared to discuss alternatives.


Can You Really Choose Your Mood?

Team-building, management development and customer service gurus all espouse that we can CHOOSE how we feel at work: that we can decide when we get up in the morning to be positive, energised and solution-focused; or, (maybe after a difficult commute) to start the day feeling hard-done-by, complaining and powerless.

Is it REALLY that easy? if so, why are we so readily drawn to the Dark Side?

It’s like scratching an itch – looking for sympathy and allies when the ‘world’s against us’; a self-indulgence, “it’s not my fault”; the instant gratification of feeling important because our colleagues join with us in moaning about: the office; the bosses; the pay; that ‘other’ team; our customers…Ah, yes, the scratching feels good doesn’t it? but where does it get us?

the dark side

Is this how we want to feel at work? wouldn’t we rather feel powerful, achieving and, well, happy?

One of my leadership challenges a while ago, was to work with a team that had developed a pronounced negative culture – they believed no-one understood how hard their job was and that they got no support or recognition; almost all general conversation in the office was complaining or blaming; they felt overworked and unable to make a difference. Actually, some of this was a self-fulfilling prophesy, as other teams did not want to work with such negative people and their customers did not get a great service and rightly complained about them.

We tackled this head-on at a team meeting, talking about how bad everyone felt (see the list above) and then I led them through a process to imagine and define how they would like it to be – how would it feel to have a good day, to get things done, to enjoy spending time with colleagues, to have happy customers…..

golden moment

It was in fact easy to see how much their own attitudes and behaviour held them back from this positive future, but harder to understand how to break out of their negative cycle. We developed some shared principles that the team committed to try:

STOP thinking and saying:

  • It’s outside my control
  • I’m not allowed to…
  • It’s not my fault
  • Someone else should have…
  • I’m overworked
  • We can’t do that


  • all interactions with colleagues and customers with a “yes…”
  • focussing on what I CAN do
  • finding creative, alternative solutions
  • appreciating the impact on others
  • smiling!

and, most importantly, working as a team, praising positive behaviour and challenging (supportively) when colleagues are tempted towards the Dark Side.

Is it possible? Try it for a day and see……

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”
— Henry Ford