Process: Holding out for a hero?

A recent blog post by Seth Godin (@ThisIsSethsBlog) created one of the “POW!” moments for me. The writeup was about organizations that always deal with “problems,” and what happens when there are no more problems to solve. Problem solvers don’t function well when they don’t have any problems to solve. They often seem lost.

We’re Here to Help

I’ve only ever worked as a hero in a hero culture (which is another way to characterize a culture based on problems), and I can attest to feeling lost when I don’t have a problem to solve. It’s always been that heroes are celebrated, rewarded, and promoted anywhere I’ve ever worked. Those that come in and save the day get more opportunities to come in and save the next day.

I’d also assert that process management is full of heroes. It is what we do. When processes are broken, we come in and fix them. When processes are underperforming, we come in and turn them around. You have a nail, we have a hammer. You have a screw, we have a drill.

But it has become more apparent to me lately that this type of culture creates many issues inside an organization. For example, heroes get pulled off projects to go save the day and the projects they leave need saving later…you pull staff to support the projects the heroes leave and those staff members feel disjointed about only ever coming in mid-stream on a project…you celebrate the hero and the other staff (those that create solid work plans and execute smoothly to those) feel under-valued. And you can’t scale a hero culture unless you hire more heroes.

The answer seems to be to transform the culture from that of a hero-based approach to a more sustainable approach. Something we talk about a lot in process. It’s great to develop a new process management program and scale it to maturity, but creating continuous improvement and sustainability is what we all hope to achieve.

Holy Shift Batman!

My catharsis came when I realized not just how hard it can be to transform a hero culture, but what happens to the hero. In a working environment characterized by stable, planned, efficient, and repeatable work, I worry heroes won’t know how to execute work. Will they get bored? Will they be able to focus (problems do allow the brain to focus) on non-emergency work?

Worse yet, might heroes (present company included) create problems just to feel they are working in their normal environment. I hope I don’t do that!

So, I’d like to hear how others deal with this issue. If you’ve been involved in transforming an organization out of a hero culture, how have the heroes performed? If you haven’t, what is your advice on how to manage that valuable skill set?

It is a massive enough effort to transform a culture, but what happens when you transform a culture away from one that supports the primary working style of your high-performers?

One Possible Option

Something one of my colleagues at APQC recently posted offered a great suggestion. Many organizations focus on external awards and standards. Create a “problem” to go win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award or the Shingo Prize. Let the hero run a project to get ISO certified or something else that will pull the organization forward in the maturity of their process management capability.


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Categories: Continuous Improvement, Disruption, Future of work, Human Resources, Leadership, Process Management, Strategy

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3 Comments on “Process: Holding out for a hero?”

  1. skth
    October 26, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    You just described the organization that I recently left. I have wrestled with how to best describe it until this article. They promoted very young, inexperienced individuals solely based on the success of one or two projects and were blind to the experience (15-25 years) of the rest of the strategic purchasing department that did the day to day work that made the company successful. Cost savings were of paramount importance to this company (especially after a quarter where they lost money), but cost savings of $15 million against a goal of $4 million was pooh-poohed. I am on my way to a company with a healthier culture where ALL results and high achievers are valued. Success in leading a project does not equal the ability to manage a group with 5 times the experience and sustainable achievements.

    • November 1, 2012 at 6:39 am #

      Thanks for your post, and sometimes moving on is the best solution. We were having this very discussion at the recent 2012 APQC Process Conference.

      The question was posed to the speaker about what to do when there is a consistent understanding of the path forward in improving the organization, but there is a layer of Management that is focused (and paid) on the near-term goal (stock price).

      The general summary of the conversation is that you have to 1.) try and continue to dialogue around the agreed to path forward, 2.) look for your opportunities to meet the long-term goals, and 3.) ultimately you have to be ready to move on to an organization that has agreed (at all levels) to the long-term path forward.

      I wish you well in your new adventure. Keep us posted.


  1. Why HEROes Should Not Be Firefighters | The Fast Track - September 12, 2013

    […] at the Successful Workplace blog, however, Ron Webb notes some problems having a culture of heroes (although his definition is more […]

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