Is that the brake or the gas?

Toyota paid out big money over their sticking accelerator pedal problem.

Turns out, according to initial reports, that the actual cause of the accidents was operator error.  It seems drivers thought they were hitting the brake when they were actually pushing the gas all the way to the floor.

While driving change I see the opposite, brake-for-gas confusion, all the time.

Our sticky pedal story starts with the perpetrators of the sticky pedal myth.  For today I’ll target as perpetrators an unnamed sum of Harvard Business Review article authors.  If you’re a leader who reads the Harvard Business Review you’d assume (because the article authors seem to all agree) that while the leader is pushing the gas for change, the employees have their feet firmly on the brake.   Consider the employees our sticky pedal.

Yet, just like the data recorders in those totaled Toyotas, if you could pull the data recorder on failed change efforts I bet you’d find a different story.

The work force is not the modern organization’s sticky pedal.  Instead, the organization’s leadership is introducing operator error, and causing terrible results.

Here’s the way our failed change story unfolds:

Leaders pour on the messages about the need to innovate, to save money or to do more with less.  It seems to all that their foot is on the gas and employees notice.

Next the employees act, often creating amazing, impressive change.

But, at the first hint that the change is getting out in front of the knowledge/control/interests of the leader (notice I didn’t say of the organization), the leader promptly, firmly, and seemingly with no regret slams on the brakes.

How will you know the brakes have been engaged (i.e., stomped, locked up)?

You’ll hear things like, “Who told you to do that?” or “Slow down or we’ll run out of work.” or the worst “Put it back the way it was.”

As a leader, you’re foot is on the gas when you are clearing the obstacles that stand in the employees’ way and when you are constantly feeding them reinforcement that they are moving in the direction you want at the pace you want (or even challenging them to go faster).  Leaders, you must be okay with speed before you start the engine, or you risk catastrophically engaging the brake.

Leaders, please keep straight which is the gas and which is the brake.

Your organization can’t afford to be totaled.

2 thoughts on “Is that the brake or the gas?”

  1. Disclaimer: I’ve just come back from my training with cognitive-edge, so my perspective is heavily influenced by what I just learned… 🙂

    People create their own narratives around experiences and I’m sure the media stories surrounding Toyota at the time, heavily influenced their narrative. Because Toyota was in the news, those people who had accidents formed the conclusion (narrative) that Toyota created a safety problem in their Prius.

    The same thing can be said around the narratives of our leaders and driving change. Many times we boil down the change data to our leaders in the form of stoplight summaries. Green, the project is good; red, there is a serious problem; etc. They are getting simple data to make decisions about complex and/or complicated problems. The lack of complete data makes people create their own narratives which may be inconsistent with reality. I understand that personal interests and agendas are also problems but sometimes the simple act of simplifying the input data causes the wrong reaction.

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