Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hero or Villain?

Imagine this. You’re the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company that’s dispersed over several states. Your company has invested millions of dollars in a new IT system. One day you learn that a 22 year old employee somewhere in the bowels of your company has sent a lengthy e-mail to staffers throughout the organization documenting the inefficiencies and glitches of the new system, and suggesting that even the process by which the IT vendor was chosen might have less than stellar integrity. This is pretty much what happened to the giant health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente. The kid in question is Justen Deal, and his e-mail highlighted, point by point, why the new system was generating problems not just with costs but with medical providers’ abilities to serve patients. And for good measure, the memo took CEO George Halvorson and other senior executives to task for jeopardizing Kaiser’s capacity to deliver high quality care because of their unquestioning allegiance to the IT system in question. If you were the CEO, what would you do? Would you fire Justin Deal? Well, that’s exactly what Kaiser did, and I suspect that most companies would have done the same. I say they’re stupid. I say Halvorson should have promoted Justen Deal. No, I’m not crazy. Consider: Here’s a kid who, on his own initiative, documented significant glitches and inefficiencies of a new IT system. On his own initiative, he did the due diligence (poring over budget and engineering reports, for example) that suggested a potential seven billion dollars of dollars of costs to Kaiser from system failures and poor output. On his own initiative (and courage), he wrote a report which he sent to his boss, Kaiser’s compliance officer, and the Kaiser board. Only when nothing happened (why am I not surprised?) did he go public within Kaiser, and not for self-aggrandizement, but because he was concerned, as the April 24 issue of Wall St. Journal reported, that “poor decisions…are positioning us for potentially catastrophic failure.” What sort of an employee do you want? A drone who takes orders well and plays it safe, or someone who takes it upon themselves to do what it takes to add value to the company, even when that means butting heads with sacred cow processes and with silverback gorilla managers? Ironically, Kaiser might have eventually paid a ton of money to an independent consulting firm to have come up with a similar document-- after the system was already clearly malfunctioning, of course. In fact, as the Journal pointed out, here’s what did happen: the frenetic attempt by Kaiser to kill the memo and paper over the mess with a public relations blitz failed, the fired Deal became a hero in the Web community, the “whistleblower” policy within Kaiser was dealt a big credibility blow, some of Deal’s technical concerns already seem to have achieved some objective traction, and the CIO of Kaiser abruptly quit. Now imagine a different scenario. Imagine if CEO Halvorson would have said: “You’re telling me that a 22 year old kid came up with all this? On his own time? I want to meet him. I want to listen to him. And if he makes sense, I want him to be part of an IT evaluation project, with full honors and a hefty increase in pay. I want everyone to know that this is the kind of person we’re interested in recruiting and retaining-- even if he’s not 100% right. And I want everyone to know that if we’re made errors, we’re going to fix them, even if it’s personally embarrassing. That’s how we build a culture of innovation and accountability.” Instead, the IT system and its entrenched defenders remain, and Kaiser has lost a curious and committed employee, the kind of employee who on his own initiative had edited Kaiser’s listing on Wikipedia because nobody else did—until, of course, higher-ups told him to cease and desist. (Again, why am I not surprised?)Do yourself a favor. Don’t spend gobs of money on motivational speakers and happy-talk training sessions which spew out pat phrases like “Empower your people!” and “Innovate and change!” until you’re clear that in your company, people like Justen Deal are more likely to be treated as heroes than villains.


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