You don’t need a hero, you need culture

Fernando Villalba 25th May 2017

We seem to be drawn to heroes, and superheroes. We want to see them in action, to rise against all odds and triumph just so we can get a vicarious experience through their efforts and feel as if one person is all that is needed to change the world for the better.

However, in an organisation or company, if you need a hero to get things done, that probably means you are not doing it right, or you are in trouble.

Professor Westrum’s study makes a very compelling argument in classifying organisations as one of three main categories: pathological, bureaucratic or generative:

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A pathological organisation is described as one where the truth is hidden, messengers are shot, egos abound and creativity is killed by peers or superiors if it makes them look bad.

We can easily envision a hero in this type of organisation, a Serpico who goes around outing corrupt police risking his life in the process, or a whistleblower in an organisation where gross misconduct is rampant, such as was Enron.

Likewise, in a bureaucratic organisation, the protagonist in the Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Ikiru, a simple civil servant who has lived for the past 25 years as a lifeless cog of a bureaucratic machine, suddenly discovers he has terminal cancer. He decides to spend the rest of his life fighting against the impenetrable governmental bureaucracy that sends citizens and workers alike into endless loops of desperation.

His journey is difficult, almost impossible but finally, he triumphs in building a park for the community before he dies. The beneficiaries of his efforts mourn him more heavily than even his own family does. Ikiru makes a remarkable job of highlighting that, life is all about having a strong, meaningful purpose and when you are riding on that purpose, people will be drawn to you and love you for it. Whereas, his own family despises him essentially for being a

“mummy” his entire life, before he found out he had cancer.

A generative organisation would not need a Serpico, or the protagonist of Ikiru, because heroic acts are distributed in a more equal measure among the staff and those companies tend to bring out the best of their employees by giving them a purpose and the means to achieve it. When you have an organisation and culture in place where it is constructive, values creativity, creates trust and empowers employees by encouraging them to make mistakes, they will be much more willing to step forward and provide you with a better quality of work.

It is rather common to hear management complain about their employees doing a poor job; passing the blame and washing their hands on the matter – but this just creates scapegoats and a culture of fear. You  do not want this in your company especially if you value productivity and creativity.

Edward Deming, an engineer and management consultant, credited as one of the inspirations that skyrocketed the Japanese industry and its quality after WWII, said that in his experience, 94% of the responsibility falls on management, and the rest on the employee [Source].

Okay, you may say that’s not entirely true. I once hired a programmer that was constantly on Facebook, didn’t work on his tickets, and was generally very lazy.

In this case, instead of blaming the programmer outright, you could have asked yourself:

  •  Why is he acting the way he is acting?
  •  Is the job he is doing not motivating enough for him?
  •  Are the tasks handed to him drudgery that could be solved by automation created with other teams?
  •  Do other programmers have the same complaints he does about the job?
  •  Can we give him a more engaging task?
  • Is the office a generative environment where everyone can speak openly without fear?

All of these should always be explored before blaming your employees. Of course, occasionally, everyone hires someone who is just not a good fit, and no matter what you do, it won’t change. In that case, you will have to let that person go, and it will be the best thing for both of you. If and when you do, be as good as you can be to them, then go back to the drawing board on your hiring process and think about these questions:

  •  What mistakes did we make when hiring this person?
  •  Did we manage his expectations?
  •  Did he know beforehand what the job was exactly?
  • Were we looking for the right set of traits and culture fit when we hired this person?

We do not need heroes, we need culture. A healthy, generative organisation where employees can thrive and achieve their fullest potential unhindered, and your job as a manager is to make their workflow easier by any means possible.

To conclude, it is important to make sure everyone is working towards a common goal and that egos or departmental pride does not get in the way of this achievement. Any individual in your organisation should trust their colleagues and not do work that is highly reliant on him or her.

Companies that heavily rely on a central figure tend to collapse once that figure is gone, and teams that rely on one employee to do a variety of things that no one else can do create bottlenecks that can cost the company a lot of money.

So, remember, share the heroics with everyone by having a great culture!


If you have any questions about ECS Digital, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

ECS Digital are leaders in Automation and Digital Transformation. We’ve been helping enterprises deliver software and software-related services faster and at lower cost through the adoption of DevOps and Continuous Delivery practices, since 2003.

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