get out of the office

In one of my first projects as a freelancer 17 years ago, I was brought into an existing client relationship with a hospital network. Our team had been contracted to develop an e-learning program for nursing staff. I was able to negotiate a ‘confirmation of the analysis’, as I had not been involved in the design process. I was given two days to interview staff on various wards. As I was not hospital staff I was accompanied by the senior nurse.

We learned a lot during those visits to the wards, and even had some procedures changed on the spot as the senior nurse became aware of some redundancies. As a result the e-learning program was cancelled and we developed a few performance support tools and some job aids instead. Training was not the solution to this challenge — getting the right information to trained and experienced nurses was.

On completing my hospital visit I thanked the senior nurse for her help. In turn she thanked me for the opportunity to make her first visit to the wards. I asked how long she had been at this hospital. Two years she responded. I said nothing but was shocked that the person in charge of clinical nursing had never been to the workplaces of the people she was supporting. How many other managers in how many workplaces are in the same situation?

In our small town of 5,000 people, the local hospital was going to be closed. Last year the CEO of the health network met with protesters to explain the reasons for the closure. She was asked how we would support the needs of our students. The CEO did not understand why this would be a problem. It was explained that we are home to a university with about 2,000 students in residence. These are in addition to our official population count. The CEO did not know this.

The university was established in 1839 and has been the top ranked undergraduate university in the country for several years. But the CEO had spent her years in the job in the Provincial capital, 200 kilometres away. In a province of 780,000 people it is not a major challenge to visit every city and most of the larger towns. The CEO could not be bothered to learn about the communities she served.

The idea of ‘leadership by walking around’ seems to have disappeared. But in complex systems, a degree of understanding is needed by people in leadership positions. It cannot come just through the chain-of-command.

“There is a limit to how much honest feedback most leaders really want to hear; and because we know this, most of us sugar-coat our opinions whenever we speak to a powerful person. In a deep hierarchy, that process is repeated many times, until the truth is utterly concealed inside a thick layer of sweet-talk.” —Adapt: Why success always starts with failure

Source: Damian Corbet quoting Janice Kaffer CEO of Hôtel Dieu Grace Healthcare, Windsor, ON

Getting managers out of their offices is a low-tech method that can reap major business benefits. Incorporating this mindset into the use of social media then increases the speed of access to knowledge and provides a reality check. Have you been out of your office — real or virtual — lately?

6 Responses to “get out of the office”

  1. Ton Zijlstra

    Very recognizable Harold, also from my work with larger government bodies in Europe. Not just managers, many other roles too, who just never go out there to meet the stakeholders they are making decisions for or about. We’ve taken water quality people to talk to farmers while standing in a field next to a water course, they wrote many plans for but never went to see. I’ve brought together wildlife policy people to talk with hunters, who despite being in that role for years, never actually had such conversations. Most realise it as something valuable afterwards. My current work around data governance and data driven decisionmaking is also regularly just asking ‘have you checked this data against reality?’, ‘did you go out there and see if that table of figures aligns well enough with what you see on the ground’?

  2. Harold Jarche

    Excellent points, Ton. As a young Infantry officer, my first profession, a good part of my job was understanding the soldiers I was responsible for. That meant having conversations in the smoke pit, and I didn’t even smoke. I learned a lot just by listening and watching. We were also trained to do pretty well everything our soldiers had to do. I think a lot of managers could not do what they demand of workers. In that case they had better watch, listen, and learn.

  3. Steve Judd

    This parallels what I learned in the Army as “the ground truth.” In the Salesforce ecosystem, they call it Salesforce Administration By Walking Around – get to know your users and their pain points, and then fix it.

    Although it was a bit hokey, there was a TV show here called, “Undercover Boss.” A CEO would be disguised and then go to work as a lower-level employee. They clearly learned a lot through the process!

  4. Harold Jarche

    Too many bosses have an understanding of the work being done from the perspective of 10 or 20 years ago. Executives should be pushing their managers out of their offices and execs should get their butts out of their offices and meetings as well.


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