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This essay builds on a previous post about The Dropped Ball Thought Experiment.


More than a mile below the ocean’s surface, a squid searches for its next meal. No light penetrates to this depth but large, specially adapted eyes enable the squid to hunt in the deep. It scans the abyss, spots a glowing orb and decides to investigate.


The squid fixates on the light source as it approaches. Engrossed by the fluorescent appendage, it fails to spot the attached monstrosity. An anglerfish lunges from the dark and snaps the squid up in her powerful jaws.


Process Visibility


Like the fluorescent lure dangling in the dark, Outcomes are more visible to the naked eye than Process.


Outcomes occur at a fixed point in time. They are expressed via clearly defined, commonly used metrics. We know where to find them: a scoreboard, a quarterly earnings report, a market share analysis.


Process, by contrast, is fluid and ongoing. There is not a clearly defined moment to analyze for success and failure. Process requires constant review and adjustment.


The Dropped Ball Thought Experiment illustrates this contrast well. The Outcome Focused coach immediately fixates on the Outcome failure with little to no work. The Process Driven coach requires the aid of replay to comb through the moments preceding the drop. The Process Driven approach requires additional labor and resources (i.e. live game film, review software, a laptop, time, etc.).


Taking this lesson – the necessity of time and resource investment to observe, analyze, and improve Process – from the sports context to a workplace context is not straightforward. In the sports world, Process is documented on video. Most workplaces do not videotape their processes. Many processes are not physical – like the act of catching a ball – and are therefore impossible to catch on camera.


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The Dropped Ball Thought Experiment

40,000 fans in attendance plus millions watching from their couch or local pub collectively groan. The commentators lament the score that might have been. Their team has dropped the ball.




Meanwhile, the coach is busy considering two questions: What was the failure? What feedback should they give to their player(s)?


The coach must choose a lens to evaluates the event. This choice fundamentally shapes his answer to these questions.




The Outcome-Focused Lens

The coach looks at the outcome of the pass from Blue 10 to Blue 3. Blue 3 dropped the ball.


Given an Outcome Focused approach, what was the failure? Blue 3 dropped the ball. Now they must decide what feedback to give to the player.


The Outcome Focused analysis provides limited information and constrains the coach’s feedback. Blue 3 had two possible outcomes: drop or catch the ball. The coach – desiring the positive outcome in the future – shouts from the sideline, “Blue 3, Catch the ball!”


What are the consequences of this feedback? Has the coach empowered Blue 3 to catch the next pass? Probably not. The feedback implies that the athlete decides while the ball is in the air whether or not to catch it: on this occasion Blue 3 chose to drop but with this feedback, he will decide to catch the ball the next time. In reality, very few people choose to drop the ball. “Catch the ball!” provides no new information to help him figure out why he dropped the ball and how to improve in the future. Because he does not have adequate information to make corrections, Blue 3 is likely to repeat the negative outcome later in the game.

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woman in hazmat suitNot all emergencies are merely acute crises.


The COVID pandemic has moved from an acute crisis of shutdowns and daily briefings to a long-term, chronic crisis. For those of us who lead organizations, this changes the way we think about the crisis and act to respond to its effects. Of course, COVID isn’t the only chronic crisis out there; it is the one that is top of mind for many of us now.


For instance:


  • I worked in an organization for seven years that had a constant financial solvency problem. No one knew week-to-week what bills would get paid, or whether payroll would be on time. That is a long-term, slow-motion crisis.


  • Another organization I worked with had lost over 50% of its revenue over 15 years and was in the process of reinventing itself to find new ways of doing business. This was a slow-motion, long-term crisis.


Long before COVID, organizations were dealing with these kinds of long-term crises. Now, we have added to those with immediate shutdowns followed by months of uncertainty in spring 2020. And COVID, as a crisis, is shifting form acute to chronic as we speak.


Having worked with a wide variety of organizations in long-term crisis over the years, here is a way of looking at long-term crisis that can frame how to move forward in this pandemic environment.


Acute Crisis Perspective


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Exasperated man staring into computer screen


No one goes into business to be frustrated.


No one takes a new job to be frustrated.


No one accepts a promotion to be frustrated.


And yet, we often are. And we often find ourselves frustrated for long periods of time.


Why is that?


What benefit do we receive from our frustrations?


I can hear people asking: “What do you mean, what benefit?”


We humans constantly weigh the costs and the benefits of anything we are doing. If something is frustrating us – especially as an ongoing frustration – there must be some benefit we gain from the frustration, or some benefit we think we are gaining. That is the only way we really will put up with the frustration.


The benefits we receive, or think we receive, from our frustrations lock us in to these long-term frustrations. And most of us want out. We want to move from frustrated to, well, just about anything else.


To understand why we put up with our frustrations, we must understand a bit about what benefits we are receiving from them. And to do so, we must talk a bit about motivation. From motivation, we can look at how to break the frustration-benefit loop.


Our Motivations

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Young man on hillside overlooking a coastal cityListen to the words you use.

Listen to the words you use about your company when it’s quiet. What are they?


Sometimes, we are celebrating, reminiscing, enjoying.

“I’m so glad we were able to help that person today. They were so excited!”

“Do you remember when we started? Look how far we’ve come!”

“It was so nice to see our staff working so well as a team today.”


Other times, we’re anxious.

“Wow, finances are tight. I wonder if we’ll be able to make payroll this week?”

“There’s a new competitor in town: what if people like them better?”

“What if we hold this event, and no one shows up?”


Still other times, we’re feeling burnt out.

“I can hardly get the motivation to go into work today.”

“What did I get myself into?”

“I feel stuck, but I don’t know how to get out.”


What do you say to yourself when it’s quiet?

Some of you are saying, “Quiet? I don’t have that.”

Ok, I hear you.

In that case, what keeps you up at night?


No matter what those statements are; whether we judge them “bad” or “good” or somehow something in between, when we allow ourselves to look at them, and really feel them: at those times, we find our “why.”

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