My wife enjoys telling stories about her first part-time job in high school. Her boss was fond of saying, "Time to lean, time to clean," which clearly implies that employees should always be doing something, and that there is always something for them to do.
You have probably worked with people that live in this mode perpetually and have internalized this perspective so thoroughly that they cannot even see when ceaseless, mindless action becomes tail-chasing behavior that runs counter to sound logic. Worse yet, when the random action goes along with constant, nitpicking intervention, it actually becomes harmful, wasteful and unproductive. Such an environment easily leads to the vicious cycle of fire starting, the constant creation of new fires, and the entire group seeing everything as a fire to be battled.
At its most extreme, such a firefighting mentality beats up the work force to the point where employees simply wear out, tune out and eventually drop out -- either mentally or literally. Human beings cannot function well on high alert for very long, nor can they truly attend to a continuous bombardment of urgent tasks. The whole "app-happy" mentality only feeds the feeling of urgency. Such a state becomes worse when information is sketchy and directions are vague or even contradictory.
I experienced a work environment where everything was always urgent and where "multiasking" was worn as a badge of honor. The leadership forced the group to approach each initiative and all interactions as a unit of firefighters would view a five-alarm fire.
But unlike a skilled unit of firefighters, confident in their preparations and plan, we usually experienced the discomfort of knowing that we were flying by the seat of our pants. Some of us would ask, Why are we doing this? Why are we running at everything on full tilt? What are the available options when we run out of firepower?
There was always a vague nonanswer. The leadership's track record taught us that most decisions were made in haste, if not devoid of any information or grasp on reality.
Supposedly urgent goals were mysteriously tossed aside in favor of some other more urgent goal decided upon in secret. Promises were made to customers behind our backs -- promises to provide additional services when we were already struggling with our current operations. And the deadline for everything was always last week.
We spent a great deal of time and energy keeping track of deadlines that we did not truly intend to meet, and we chased stakeholders who never intended to keep their commitments. Running out of control, we did a lot of backtracking and apologizing. Only the apologies were never sincere, since we were not making any effort to change anything. An apology losses its impact after the first or second time and makes you and your team look foolish.
Always behind schedule, we were frequently trying to do too many different things for too many people. There were way too many moving parts for a fairly simple endeavor. As a result, paranoia was rampant, which caused members of the group to confront one another about mistakes. All the random motion wasted more time and multiplied problems, which led to more urgent issues and instances of individuals covering their backside.
A business should never reach rock-bottom before the leadership comes to grips with the situation. A leader's owning up to obvious problems is the crucial first step toward a company's recovery.
The second and most important step is for such a leader to STOP the cycle of bad behavior. The world is full of leaders who are actually chaos junkies, and they spread bad habits to others wherever they go. True leadership is about having a clear, concise vision for what must be accomplished. It means providing a straightforward plan consisting of two or three modest, achievable goals that anyone in the group can explain in two or three sentences.
It also means having the maturity to truly understand a group's strengths and then streamline the operation to suit one or two quality products or services. A high level of thought leading to a minimalist approach can bring success by pleasing a small circle of happy customers.
Over the years, I have learned from the fire of battle that the idea of a business existing in controlled chaos is nonsense. It is only chaos that controls a business oriented toward chaos.
Leadership that promotes working out of control, whirling around like a madman, only shows poor leadership. It points to bad communication and an inability to make decisions. It also speaks volumes about the amount of care that goes into the business.
Stakeholders, employees and customers will immediately notice the disturbing signs of poor leadership, and more of them will choose to go elsewhere.