The Alluring Aroma of Freshly Baked Pie Cooling on the Windowsill

Remember back to when you were a kid (for some of you, that’s waay back, so I’m sorry for taxing your memory like that, but I appreciate all the wisdom you bring. Too much?). In some cartoons, there was the common TV trope of a pie resting on a windowsill to cool off. Naturally, one of the characters would walk past said pie and… well, they just couldn’t resist. Hilarity ensued.

In the cartoon, it’s imperative for there to be a pie there cooling off, otherwise, no “hilarity would ensue.” But what about in real life. What about in your life? What about in your organization’s life? Are there pies sitting on the windowsill that might be better to cool off – at a minimum – on a windowsill not within arm’s reach of the sidewalk?

Motivation and incentives are the wheels that move life. I’m thirsty, so I go to the kitchen to get a glass of water. My organization needs an IT expert, so we publish an open competition for an IT specialist. Even with this motivation to do things one way, often times, there’s something in the path that prevents us from getting there. Maybe on my way to the kitchen, I pass by a bottle of ‘cola’ next to an empty cup. Being as though that I’m thirsty, I decide to abort my mission to go to the kitchen for water and instead, drink the pop. (Pop is healthy, isn’t it?) Maybe as my company was looking for an IT expert, someone’s sister was an IT expert, so we just hired her instead. (Nepotism isn’t so bad, is it?)

These examples might seem overly simplistic, so let’s spice it up.

Managers in the federal government perform a yeoman’s task of balancing the needs of directors (i.e. newly minted EX’s who almost certainly want to show their new superiors that they didn’t make the wrong choice in selecting them out of the pool) and the needs of all the people below them (which, depending on the department, can be as few as a handful or as many as a baseball team). The director tells the manager that they need 25 products by the end of the week (because that’s what the client has been promised), so the manager then turns to the team and says, “I need 25 products by Thursday,” even if the team is still recovering from the 25 products from last week.

No matter how good intentioned that manager is, pressure will mount and cause the manager to push the team harder to get the 25 products completed (up to and including, rewriting some or all of the products to ensure that the director thinks the products satisfactory). The scent of the pie on the windowsill is just too strong – the manager needs the products completed, welfare of the team be darned.

How many of you can relate to this example?

I’ve only been in the government a few years, but I’ve come across more people than I’d like to admit who have recounted facsimiles of that very same story. So what can we do?

Well, for starters – MOVE THE DANG PIE!

Sorry about my yelling there. Incentives are a touchy subject for me.

In the cartoon example, it’s really easy to see what’s wrong. The baker/chef should have put the pie somewhere else to cool off. Things start to get a little more complicated when we think about the incentives (intended or unintended) of bureaucracy. I’m of the mind that despite something appearing as though it’s not working, there were probably honest reasons as to why it was made that way in the first place. At the same time, those reasons may have been overtaken by events, so let’s get to work on redesigning things.

So, managers have pressures from above and from below. The pressures from above are tangible (i.e. 25 products by Friday) and the pressures from below are intangible (i.e. my team is overworked and stressed). [NOTE: you could probably argue health as a tangible pressure, but let’s just go with it as intangible for now, shall we?] If we could wave our magic wand and relieve some of the pressures for the manager, I’m sure that would be just lovely. Maybe now, the manager only needs to spit out 10 products a week and they’re able to give their team a break every 3 weeks (i.e. no products due this week – you deserve it, team!). Great. Now we’ve solved this manager’s problems. But what about that newly minted director who still needs to impress his superiors? They’re still looking for 15 more products than what they’re getting. Who’s going to step up?

Anytime you start messing around with incentives at one level of a complex system, it’s going to have a cascading effect on the rest of the system. The bureaucracy that is the Government of Canada is the very definition of a complex system. If we change the incentives for one manager under one director in one team, how will that change affect the system? What if we wanted to alleviate pressure on the director’s boss? How will that have an effect on the boss’s boss? And what about the boss’s boss’s boss? And the Minister? And the Prime Minister? And maybe more importantly, Canadians!?

I got a little carried away there, but the point still stands. We need to do a better job at noticing the pies on the windowsills before we fall prey to them. The first step in any process of change is always awareness. What are some of the ‘pies on the windowsill’ in your area?

This post originally appeared on GCconnex/GCcollab.

Published by Jeremiah Stanghini

Jeremiah's primary aim is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the "Blind Men and the Elephant," it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a 'tusk' or a 'leg.' He writes on a variety of topics: psychology, business, science, entertainment, politics, history, etc.

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