Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 2;   January 10, 2007: When Fear Takes Hold

When Fear Takes Hold


Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
A German Shepherd in a calmer moment

A German Shepherd relative of Harry's in a less-panicked moment.

When an organization faces a difficult problem, its leaders face two challenges. First, they must devise a solution, and then they must communicate it to the people they lead. Sometimes, leaders focus too narrowly on the original problem, and view the communication as a secondary annoyance. Too bad for them, because a solution is a solution only if you can communicate it to the people you lead. I learned this one day from a German Shepherd named Harry.

It's a prematurely cool late August morning, and I'm doing my daily circuit around Fresh Pond. The pond is warmer than the air, and its mirrored surface steams. I come around a turn in the path and spy a lone German Shepherd — probably a mix — on the path up ahead. He's looking across the meadow anxiously, listening.

I hear a female voice from across the meadow calling, "Harry…..Harry…" Harry freezes, ears up. He takes a step toward the voice, but the meadow is fenced here, and he's stumped. It's a vinyl fence, not very high, but insurmountable for Harry. I call to him because the fence ends about 20 feet behind me, and if he sees that, he'll be able to cross the meadow to reach his master.

Harry runs the other way. I don't take it personally — he's almost panicked.

After about three bounds, he changes his mind, and runs back past me. I figure, well, he'll be OK, and I continue on my way.

Even when an elegant
solution would almost
certainly work, a
simpler fix can
be more effective
But then I realize that the meadow is fenced on the other side, and worse, there's a stretch of high weeds, poison ivy, marsh, and brambles that he'll have to get through. Oh well, I think, not my problem. I continue on my way.

Soon Harry appears about ten feet in front of me, in the meadow, on the other side of the fence. Now he's trying to get out, and he's even more panicked than before. I call to him, and lift the bottom of the fence for him to scoot under. He considers it.

If he accepts, he'll be able to run around the meadow and reach his master. But he doesn't understand that. To Harry, I seem to be leading in the wrong direction.

In the midst of his internal debate, his master calls again. Harry makes a decision. He turns and runs across the meadow toward his master — and the bramble patch. He halts at its edge, unsure. His master calls again. He dives into the brambles, and as he reaches the far fence, his master raises it as I did, and Harry scoots through, tail wagging furiously. His master waves to me, I wave back, and all is well again in our little universe.

Sometimes the solution you can communicate clearly is the only one that will work. Go to top Top  Next issue: Definitions of Insanity  Next Issue

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