Three guys out fishing start taking on water. The first guy to notice it grabs the nearest thing he sees that can bail water: a tiny little cup. He starts bailing furiously, but it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. The other two haven’t noticed yet, as they are busy fishing. The first guy assumes this is a temporary problem and keeps bailing, all the while looking back at his rod in case a fish bites.

It starts getting worse.

The second guy realizes there is a problem, and he, too, starts bailing. He has a red Solo cup, so he moves more water than the first guy, but he still isn’t making a lot of headway. He doesn’t want to leave his fishing rod, either, so is pretty distracted from the bailing effort. Every once in a while he gets a bite, stops bailing, and tries to land the fish. He finds it is more difficult to net the fish when you have to rummage in the water in the bottom of the boat for the net.

The third guy is late to the party. He has been solely focused on fishing and finally catches on when he can’t get to the live well because of the water they are taking on. Something has to be done! He grabs a bucket and starts bailing, too, still with one eye on his rod.

By now everyone is focused on bailing, and no fishing is going on, which was the purpose of the outing. And they keep on taking on water. The tiny cup, the red Solo cup, and the bucket aren’t enough. Yet they remain determined to keep trying the same things, hoping somehow their efforts will be rewarded with a dry boat and a return to their fishing. It hasn’t yet dawned on this trio to try something different.

Eventually they take on enough water that they have to abandon their day of fishing (the whole point of being at the lake), and are at risk of losing the boat altogether.

I’m not yet sure how this story ends. If the guys continue what they are doing now they will not be able to fish, and they will eventually lose their means of fishing. But trying something different takes away from fishing and from bailing, and in the heat of the moment nobody wants to stop trying to accomplish the goal (fishing) and preserve the organization (bailing).

I think sometimes people act that way because they don’t know that there are alternatives. Nobody told them there was a pump and they could use it. Nobody tasked them to figure out the source of the water and address it. Each of our fishermen were equipped to do only two things: fish and bail, and some were poorly equipped to do either.

This mindset is prevalent in bureaucracies: you have your lane, your duty description. You have a mission to accomplish and it is someone else’s job to address the water coming in the boat.

How might this manifest in an organization? How about managing your workforce?

When someone leaves your organization your hiring managers go to work replacing them. If your staffing process is functioning properly, you are able to hire at roughly your attrition rate. You can get the water out of the boat at the same rate it’s coming in, and the rest of your folks can concentrate on the mission.

But if you have a long lag time in your process you start to accumulate empty desks. The others in that office have to pick up the slack to keep the mission on track. This usually isn’t a problem in the short term, but over time fishing from two or three rods while the fish are biting will wear people out.

As the empty desks accumulate, more people may need to get involved in hiring replacements, which means fewer people are focused on delivering the mission. Eventually you get everyone you can afford to focused on hiring but if your process isn’t better than simply bailing with a cup you won’t get anywhere, and the mission is still suffering.  If you are too busy fishing and bailing to find help, plug the leak, or start a pump you’re gonna sink.

How well-equipped is your organization to deal with this kind of problem? What sensors are in place to figure out when the water in the bottom of the boat isn’t just the normal amount that accumulates while fishing? How are leaders and workers alerted to the changing conditions so they can adjust? What changes are leaders prepared to make to address extraordinary circumstances? Have leaders even thought through where they might get a pump?

Leaders have a duty to monitor the environment and help lead the changes necessary to keep the organization performing well, even as conditions change. If attrition exceeds staffing, change something to fix that. If others in your industry have changed how they market, recruit, produce, use data, or whatever, leaders must figure out what that change means and how the organization needs to adjust. Doing the same things we did yesterday or “trying harder” using failing or outdated systems is a recipe for failure.

If we insist that the cups and buckets are the only tools we have and that we should just “try harder,” we are done fishing and our boat is sunk.

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