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Heroes Don’t Scale

“Hero” is one of those positive words that gives us mental images of rescuing children from burning buildings or saving troops from certain death. We admire, praise and imitate heroes; they set the standard for bravery and going “beyond the call of duty.”

But despite the personal admiration associated with heroism, there’s a dark side to some heroism stories. If we look past the glory of the heroic act itself, we sometimes wonder whether the need for the heroic act could have been avoided. Why didn’t the child leave the burning building earlier? How did the surrounded troops get in that position in the first place?

Our asking these questions doesn’t make the heroes any less heroic; these people still performed a selfless act that deserves our admiration. But it’s important to think about heroic situations in order to reduce the need for heroism in the future. There’s only a limited supply of heroes in the world, and it would be a shame to waste them on unnecessary heroism.

I once worked with a business which overemphasized heroism. A consultant once told them, “Your company is the best crisis management organization I’ve ever seen, but unfortunately you treat everything as a crisis.” The observation was absolutely correct; the culture of the organization was to spend most of the time dealing with exceptions to the rule, but without establishing very many rules to begin with. There was minimal emphasis on planning, but a huge emphasis on being ready for the unexpected. It was a service business, and the guidelines for the service were minimal: just do anything the customer wants, and hope that the business can make a profit by doing so.

Contrast this with NASA, the U.S. space program, where the emphasis is on anticipating any possible thing that could go wrong and doing endless simulations to prepare astronauts to deal with those problems. Space walks are practiced under water to simulate weightlessness. The astronauts are even subjected to real weightlessness in a diving airplane (the so-called “Vomit Comet”) so that they are prepared for the physical sensations they’ll get in space.

Of course, in spite of all of the NASA preparation, things happen that aren’t anticipated. The Apollo 13 moon mission was a great example; we almost lost the astronauts altogether but for the heroism of our people in space and our engineers on the ground. Preparation, practice and established processes don’t handle all of our problems, but they position us well, and they prepare us better for dealing with the occasional situation where true heroism is required.

Why Talk about Heroes?
You may ask, “Why is all of this talk about heroes relevant to me?” Here’s why: People in our organizations act the way they do because of the way we motivate and reward them. It’s ok to reward an occasional hero, but it’s critically important to equally reward the people who do things on a day-to-day basis which make it unnecessary for heroism to occur.

If you only reward heroism and crisis handling, and you ignore crisis prevention, then you run a serious risk of turning your organization into a crisis handling machine. Such an organization can operate successfully for years, but it can’t scale; it’s very difficult for the organization to grow and handle bigger challenges because it’s just barely meeting the challenges that exist. An organization that depends on the heroism of individuals won’t survive in the long-term. People burn out when they have to be heroic on a day-to-day basis, and after a while they get frustrated and they begin to realize, “Why do I have to do this time after time?” An organization of heroes requires a constant supply of new heroes, and unless you have some political basis for their motivation (e.g., the security of the country), then you’ll eventually run out of recruits.

What’s worse, even if you develop a heroic organization that works well with 100 heroes, you’ll find it very difficult to increase its capacity to handle higher volumes. Can you find 200 heroes? 300 heroes? 1,000 heroes? When you have an organization that’s dependent on the heroism of individuals, you’re artificially limiting its capacity for growth. One person acting beyond the expectations of any individual is a hero. But to expect heroic behavior on a daily basis is unfair to the people and the organization. Heroism is, by definition, an exceptional behavior. But the necessity of heroism can be avoided in most cases by establishing solid rules and processes that govern day-to-day activity.

Reward your heroes, but recognize them as exceptions, and establish processes that make day-to-day heroism unnecessary. Then reward the people who create the processes and who keep these day-to-day processes running. Remember that heroes don’t scale, but that you can scale well-defined processes. The capacity for growth is a necessity in any successful organization, and you can only achieve growth when you’re not dependent on heroism.

Note: The title for this article came from a comment made in a presentation at the April SIM Atlanta meeting by Dr. Guido Sacchi, CIO and Executive Director of Shared Services at CompuCredit. My thanks to Dr. Sacchi.

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