Looking in looking out

9 09 2011

In the middle of the Great Australian Bight – the southern part of Australia that looks like someone has taken a bite out of it – there is a long flat plain called the Nullabor Plain.

Nullabor Plain (licensed under Creative Commons)

Nullabor is Latin for no trees. The land is flat for as far as the eye can see, until it comes to crashing cliffs, a huge drop into the wild southern ocean. Literally the edge of the world.

In the middle of the Nullabor Plain is a dead-straight stretch of road called the ninety mile straight. The road is completely straight, no ups, no downs, no bends or curves. Straight. Mid-level scrub but no trees.

Photo courtesy Yewenyi at en.wikipedia (Brian Voon Yee Yap) under creative commons

Take a moment to consider. (cue cricket noises)

OK, minute’s up.

Halfway through the ninety-mile straight is a tree. One. Not a big one. A fairly battered scrubby tree, as survival in outback Australia tends to favour.

And the number of cars that hit that tree is phenomenal.

In miles and miles of nothingness, cars swerve off the road specifically to hit that tree.

Why? I hear you ask.

Well because after that much nothingness, the brain gets bored and when there is suddenly something of interest – say, a tree – then that is what people look at.

And whatever you look at is what you head for. And then crash into.

Which is a long-winded, drawn-out way of saying, whatever your organisation is focussing on, whatever your staff are focussing on, is where they are going.

This is a metaphor I tend to use quite often. So where might your collective organisation eyes be looking?

Behind you: this happens in a poor organisational culture where people are stuck in the past, or are fearful and trying to look over their shoulders to see what is sneaking up on them. Or perhaps the past was such fabulous glory days that people are still thinking about them. It is important to recognise the past, but not to get stuck in it.

Down: sounds good huh? Head down – bottom up is often used as an example of working hard. And indeed, these people are working hard at the piece of work they have in front of them. Every workplace needs people like this. But the people with their heads down are not the people being creative and strategic.

Inwards: this is when the organisation focusses in on itself. And this can be a good thing – quality control, process improvement – or a bad thing – in a blame culture, where staff and management focus on each other as the problem.

Outwards: can be focussing on clients / consumers – which is a good thing. Providing it is backed up with solid internal processes.

Sideways: Could be that people are looking sideways to get out, or to compare themselves and their workplace with others. But it could also be they are looking sideways to see what good ideas they can find from others.

Up: this is the strategic, creative area. Looking up is looking at what could be, what might be. Forward looking organisations need people like this – but they also need to be grounded in relaity, and making sure the work and the quality processes are getting done behind the scenes. An organisation full of people looking up will trip over itself.

There is a bit of NLP in this, but the other important thing to remember is that it is difficult if not impossible to look in more than one direction at a time. If you are looking over your shoulder, you can’t look up. So if you want your staff to be creative and strategic (looking up) they need to feel comfortable enough not to look over their shoulder all the time.

So while I hate to fence-sit, the best situation is probably a combination of directions. We need people who are head down doing the process work. We need the dreamers, the creatives and the strategic thinkers who are looking upwards. We need the focus on internal processes and quality, but also on outwards – the clients, consumers and end-users.

And we need to create an environment where people don’t feel they need to look over their shoulder all the time.