Over the last few months, a condition which was diagnosed as ‘frozen shoulder’ early on in the year has been steadily deteriorating. So much so that I am now in continuous and considerable pain. Yet it was only once the pain had reached a certain threshold that it became severe enough to warrant my attention.
It got me thinking about how we notice and respond to pain in other areas of our life. As we all know, pain is a ‘cry for help’, a warning system to grab our attention. If we’re not so great at listening to it on a physical level, how do we respond to business pain? How can we catch the early warning signs that things aren’t quite right, or need attention?
While most businesses will have standard reports and data-sets to report on key metrics, if there are problems beginning to show through your reports, it’s probably late in the day. So how can you detect early warning signs ahead of the trend-lines? How do you diagnose and test your hypothesis to ensure the right treatment?
Watch, Listen and Observe
This is the most important step for your leadership team, and often the most overlooked. In a world where there is so much focus on targets and performance, it’s natural that all the focus and attention is directed towards these. But if leaders properly listen to what’s being said in conversation, if they watch the behaviour of people around the business and observe what’s being said on social media, it’s likely they’ll get advance warning if things are not quite right, before the real pain sets in.
Without data to back up a ‘hunch’ it’s often difficult to justify a course of action based on intuition. Yet intuition is a huge asset that comes with experience. It doesn’t mean leaders should act on intuition alone, but paying attention to it means following it up in order to make an accurate diagnosis (i.e. ‘root cause analysis’) – testing the theory, asking peers if they’ve noticed similar patterns, and brainstorming short-term changes (with minimal risk) to verify whether the ‘gut feel’ is right. Of course, if your reporting is sophisticated enough to be real-time across a broad range of key metrics then now’s the time to cross-reference them.
Once the pain has been identified and intuition tested, an initial diagnosis can be made. It’s important this is done in consultation with key parties who are affected by the potential pain this problem could cause. Communication is key – what are the emerging trends (e.g. cost-creep, absenteeism, drop in production or social media engagement), and what could the problem(s) be? Always take a step back – what’s the problem behind the problem?
Implement Solutions – Fast!
Timing is everything. The whole point of catching pain before it becomes too painful is that you don’t let new behaviours compensate for problems, which then have a negative knock-on effect. In the same way that the body will re-adjust to alleviate the pressure on the ‘weak’ area, an organisation can subliminally avoid pain by introducing new ways of doing things. The problem can be compounded. Make sure that you have short-term measures in place to validate whether the new solutions are addressing the problem. What would you expect to see happen? What is your feedback mechanism?
The above may sound obvious, but these days business is running at such a pace that people don’t have time to watch the signals and observe the early-warning signs. It takes discipline to say ‘time-out’, identify the pain and take steps to address it. But as I’ve learned to my own cost, early intervention saves time and performance issues in the long-run.