Article: Why teams fail and take organizations down

Performance Management

Why teams fail and take organizations down

A scene from the iconic I Love Lucy series illustrates how team failure radiates upwards

This is arguably the most famous scene in Lucy’s career. I Love Lucy was an American television series in the early 1950s. In this funny scene, Ethel and Lucy fail spectacularly while working at a chocolate factory. Many things go wrong and one can find here parallels to what happens in organizations. Take a look.

Does your team understand what they are supposed to do? For Lucy and Ethel, the task at hand is clearly explained – to wrap the chocolates. But do they really understand how to be successful at it? Not really. They are not told how fast or slow the chocolates will come down the assembly line; they have not had an opportunity to do a trial run; they have not had a chance to ask questions. While the task might look simple to the manager, do your team members really understand what they are supposed to do?

Do they know what to do when something goes wrong? After just a few chocolates, Lucy and Ethel are not able to cope with the speed of the chocolates coming to them and they do not know what to do. Can they stop the lane? How? Can they raise an alarm? Where? We need to ask if we are equipping our teams with the mechanism to raise concerns before the problem becomes bigger.

If they fail, what are the consequences? This scene shows how the fear of failure is too strong. The boss comes and yells at Ethel and Lucy that this is their last chance (they have been already fired from three other departments in the factory). You can see the fear in their eyes. We probably don’t need scientific research to tell us this, but many studies show that fear of job loss causes workers to feel dissatisfied, affecting their performance and commitment. In today’s changing environment, do your team members fear losing their jobs if they fail? Do people have a safe environment to perform?

Is it then better to hide from the boss? All of the above create a destructive cycle of hiding and pretending. Ethel and Lucy start eating the chocolates and hiding them in their caps. While it is hilarious to see in a TV serial, it is scary to think that this is what might be actually happening in the organization. The environment is such that people are not incentivized to raise mistakes, but actually to hide them. In this case, the whole team hides the mistake, becoming accomplices. They save their jobs but create a huge loss for the organization.

At the core of it all is the question of whether the leader is able to create an environment for the team to perform at their best. Do people know what is expected from them? Are they trained, equipped and ready for the role? Are we providing a safety net and encouraging them to make mistakes and raise concerns? Are their incentives aligned with the organization’s health and success? I remember Amit Mukherjee, Professor of Management & Managing Director of Hult Labs at our roundtable in Mumbai saying that middle managers are responsible for organizational failure. Well I can very well see that in the manager in Lucy’s famous chocolate scene.


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Topics: Performance Management, #Communication

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