From your position high above the ground you have an unrestricted view of the surrounding countryside. You see the enemy advance with its archers and siege engines.
When arrows and random projectiles started hurtling your way you duck behind a merlon and only step out from behind it to launch your own arrows.
And therein lay the problem: in order to do that you step into the line of fire. This, sadly, proved the end of many a castle archer.
Fast forward a hundred years when a new architectural feature hit the castle scene. The feature was all about protecting the archers; it allowed them to launch arrows continuously while remaining safe and hidden.
This feature, called a loophole, first appeared in ancient Greece in the third century BCE but didn’t find its way to Europe and England until the 12th century.
On the outside loopholes were as tall as a man but only as wide as his fist.
On the inside the slit flared into an opening or embrasure that could be many feet wide. This interior wedge of space gave the archer room to maneuver and launch arrows through the slit.
He could pivot his body to cover a tapering slice of land below, but only a very small area was visible at any given time.
Loopholes were long vertical apertures or windows in thick castle walls.
The benefit of the loophole was clear: it kept the archer safe from incoming arrows. But it had a downside: the view from any single loophole was at best extremely limited.
And therein lay the dilemma of the loophole: archers had to sacrifice visibility and flexibility in favor of safety.
What was given up when loopholes overtook merlons was the larger picture of what was going on outside the view from the loophole.
Human brains have their own version of the loophole dilemma, and it’s literally built into our DNA. Survival of our distant forebears required that they be able to process just the right bits information at any given time.
Too much and important information would be buried in the deluge of sensory data. Individuals without this ability did not survive for long.
To handle this, early hominid brains developed a strategy that was so effective it lives on in us today. It is a circular system full of red tape. Out of the millions of bits of random data that enter our senses at any given instant, only the sensory information that fits the criteria for admittance into perception is allowed in.
The criteria have everything to do with what has direct and immediate relevance to the situation at hand. This information enters the brain through short term memory (short term memory is really that: it has a shelf-life of just seconds). Of that information, only lastingly relevant information is transferred to long term memory; the rest is discarded, lost forever.
This bureaucracy of the brain takes place within a system called organizing patterns, the real forces for survival. Organizing patterns are the brain mechanism though which all incoming sensory data is classified according to pre-existing patterns already stored in the brain.
Not only is all new information classified in this way, but these pre-existing organizing patterns are the only channels through which information can enter into memory.
These patterns allowed our forebears to react instantly to stimuli (Can I eat it? Can it eat me?) without having to go through a rigorous process of analysis of each new situation. Such a lengthy process would have greatly reduced the chances of eating and greatly increased those of being eaten!
Like loopholes, organizing patterns did a lot for our chances of survival, but as with loopholes there was a price to pay. Organizing patterns gave us the ability to have a clear organized view of the world out of which we could make instantaneous decisions (clear and organized perhaps, but rarely accurate or complete).
What we sacrificed for this security was our ability to see a larger more diverse view of the world. We are literally stuck peering through our organizing patterns. It is a narrow field of vision, limited to the collective information already stored and organized in our brains.
In a circular process organizing patterns alter new information so that it fits into what we already believe. The altered new information in turn reinforces the organizing patterns, and round and round it goes. This becomes our whole world, our wedge of ground outside our loophole; it IS our reality, and nothing really new ever enters our cognition. Change tends to be restricted to a small window of comfort.
There are some lessons we can learn from the loophole dilemma. Loopholes teach us that what we believe to be fact is in reality a small and very limited view of what is actually there. We are limited by the existing constraints of our organizing patterns, and completely blind to the fact that we ARE limited.
We could also learn that when we think we are changing or acquiring new understandings, we are like the archer pivoting from side to side in his embrasure always within the loophole and always seeing just a tiny area.
In order to see a broader view we would need to leave the safety of our mental embrasures and inquire what might be out there that we haven’t seen, the seeing of which might change everything.
As American Airlines tends to do, it left stranded passengers without useful information about the status of the flight.
The Twittersphere was humming and passengers were in rebellion mode. This can’t be a good for the brand, especially for an airline that’s in bankruptcy.
Don B. wanted to fly from Los Angeles to Seattle on Christmas Eve, 2012. He was looking forward to spending the holidays with his family whom he hadn’t seen in some time.
In October he made reservations for himself and a friend using American Airlines‘ online reservation site.
The site was difficult to use, froze up and lost his data a number of times.
It took Don, a veteran web developer, five tries to successfully enter his information, but finally the reservations went through, and confirmation was sent to his email address.
The day before the flight Don tried to check in online, but he got an error message saying simply that he’d have to check in at the airport.
There was no indication of what the problem was. He thought nothing of it and went to the American Airlines counter to check in the next day.
The person at the counter reiterated that there was a problem with his reservations, but she couldn’t give him any information. He would have to call American Airlines central reservation desk and speak with them directly.
Since they had no direct phone line that he could use, he had to use his cell phone.
Only when he called did he find out the problem: both seats were in his friend’s name (remember the glitchy reservation web site?).
Don’s friend could travel in whichever of the two reserved seats she wished, but he would have to buy a new ticket if there was room on the plane (of course there was room – he had two tickets!)
Don asked to speak a supervisor. The supervisor’s opening salvo was a scolding to Don for the quality of the cell phone transmission. The call went downhill from there.
Don explained that the error was with American Airlines’ web site. They were obviously aware that he was the main passenger, since all travel information was addressed to him, and not to his friend with the two seats.
But the supervisor, unrelenting in her abrasiveness, said, no matter, the onus is on the customer to catch the error. He could still fly that night, however, he would have to buy a new ticket. Don said OK. But the price she quoted was far in excess of what he’d already paid.
He ended up passing on her offer and missed the Christmas family reunion.
There’s more. Don’s son, who had flown to Seattle for Christmas, decided to come to Los Angeles to visit Don. He got up at 4:00 a.m. to board the 6:30 a.m. Alaska Air flight that took him to San Francisco and would connect to his 9:30 a.m. American Airlines flight on to Los Angeles.
The flight boarded, taxied, but was forced to return to the terminal. The cause was a mystery to the passengers and the airline wasn’t telling.
The flight was delayed one hour, two hours, four hours…eight hours…the passengers waited for information.
Those who had access to smart phones were able to get some information online.
After nines hours the flight finally took off.
Airplanes are complicated things: stuff happens to them. Better delay than death. But once again delay was not the only issue. Equally important was how American Airlines handled it.
The flight wasn’t delayed because of weather, or war or extraterrestrial hanky panky: the flight was delayed as a result of an internal problem with American Airlines.
It would not have required magical thinking to expect the airline to offer passengers some comfort during the nine hours.
They recieved a single breakfast voucher immediately upon deplaning (had the passengers known they’d be stranded for so long they could have eaten their Fruit Loops one at a time and made them last the whole day).
Certainly it was evident early on to American Airlines that this wasn’t a one hour glitch, so did they consciously misrepresented the severity of the problem and the duration of the delay?
A strategic move perhaps: by parcelling out snippets of worthless information they were able to keep most of the passengers close to their own gate and not on other airlines.
My guess is that if the passengers had known right off the bat how long the delay was projected to be, there would have been a stampede to other airlines, and that would have been expensive for American Airlines.
Don and his friend subsequently wrote to fifteen different American Airlines executives to relate their story and that of his son. Interestingly, out of all those letters, the only reply came from Steve Lasner on behalf of American Airlines’s general counsel, Gary Kennedy.
Why would a company who valued its customers answer a first-contact customer service issue through their corporate attorney? The answer is, they wouldn’t. Only a company who saw customers as a threat would do that.
Mr. Lasner explained that American Airlines is not responsible for their web site: “when a you buy tickets online you’re acting as your own travel agent” and problems are the responsibility of the customer, not American Airlines.
This refrain was too familiar. (I find myself wondering what American Airlines would do if suddenly all customers booked by phone.)
And yet the communication from Mr. Lasner did not have to be the disaster it was. The only thing he needed to do for Don and his friend was to show that he – that American Airlines – cared. But clearly caring for customers is not an American Airlines priority.
Sadly, there may not be any relief in sight for customers with the upcoming American Airlines-US Airways merger. In a sense it’s an understandable pairing given that these two airlines seem to be vying for he same top spots in the Department of Transportation’s list of the most complained-about US-based airlines.
In 2012 American Airlines ranked third worst out of sixteen; US Airways ranked fourth, an improvement over their 2011 rank of second most-complained-about airline.
In a recent letter to customers, American Airlines CEO Thomas Horton raved about the great variety of travel options that would be available to passengers due to this merger, yet he managed to say not a word about improved customer service. This is not reassuring to American Airlines regulars.
Contrast that to Southwest Airlines who regularly ranks as America’s least complained about airline. They herd you, they box you, and finally funnel you down a chute to scramble for seats, and somehow it’s OK, because you get the feeling that Southwest likes you. Now that’s brand management.
I suspect that American Airlines will punish the reservations supervisor. It’s typical for organizations like American Airlines that eschew responsibility for the culture they created and harbor to blame minor functionaries for manifesting that culture.
Every organization lives on two levels: the level of the things we see and that of things unseen.
The organizational life we see is made up of all of our daily involvements, including strategy, goods and services, customers, policies, performance management, visible parts of culture and much more.
This obvious life of the organization is where we put almost all of our attention, but for all the hoopla, it’s not where the real action is.
It’s exciting, dynamic, and bursting with possibilities. Creativity, innovation, commitment and empowerment all happen here. Real and lasting change, when it happens, happens here first.
To understand the secret life is to understand the organization. Yet, for all its mighty potential, it’s almost always neglected and even consciously avoided.
The Veritas Group enhances your organizations ability to utilize and leverage the vital power of this hidden level.
Culture influences everything we do and think within the organization. It extends out to the farthest reaches surmounting geographic and social barriers, and it is amazingly resistant to change. Culture is the social container in which everything in an organization takes place. Ignore it at your own risk!
Why is culture so pervasive and so strong? Well, it’s the job of culture to make sure that nothing in the organization gets so out of balance that it becomes unstable, unpredictable or threatens the survival of the organization. “Better safe than sorry,” is the motto of culture; its core unifying principle is values, and the enforcer is the norms.
It’s also the job of culture to make sure that important survival and success-based knowledge survives and is passed on. A lot of this knowledge has to do with skills, but more importantly and subtly it deals with the transmission of the group’s values and norms, assumptions and beliefs. Thus, we can say that the purpose of culture is to maintain order and the status quo, and to contain and transmit the sum of organizational experience and knowledge to ensure continuity.
When we understand this we can see why change in organizations can be so difficult to bring about: change by its very nature IS discontinuous; even “continuous change” is discontinuous if only in small increments.
Look at an organization. What do you see? Well, you’ll likely see goods and services, employees and customers, sales materials, business strategies and plans. You could see a building, a web site and some other tangible artifacts.
But, try to gaze into the mire we call culture, and the first thing you’ll see is that you can’t see much. But keep looking, and some things will phase into view. You might notice a mission or vision statement written somewhere.
You might observe that people tend to dress in a certain way or that the building has a particular layout or decor. You’ll probably notice there are stated rules, standards, and behavioral norms that people are expected to follow and a set of espoused values in place to guide…well, everything.
If you listen hard you might hear some stories about the deeds and exploits of prominent people in the company that are designed to drive home those rules, standards, norms and values.
One thing you’ll probably notice is that there’s an awful lot of measuring going on: just about anything that can be measured is measured, and all these measured things are used to design strategies and make plans. This is the visible organization. We put our energy here because it’s what we can “see”!