Like most Americans I am an adrenaline junkie. I am drawn to bailing out organizations and playing the role of the tactical hero.  However, after many string of successes, I was surprised at the number of organizations that faltered and folded after I left and that all the tactical changes I made were fleeting at best.  Since then what I have learned is that while heroes are needed at the top, they can actually do harm at the bottom over the long run unless properly managed by a strategic hero. This is because tactical heroes absorb the organization’s pain and block it from reaching the leadership that could actually make the necessary structural changes.

Let me explain through the analogy lens of the movie – 300. Most folks in IT can relate to this movie. If you can’t or worse you hate analogies, then this article isn’t for you because the reality is that strategy is based in pattern, structure, and process. That is why analogies work when making structural changes – parts don’t matter in these cases, only how the parts fit together.  If you do not understand the need for analogies, you are not a strategic hero.

Anyway, the tactics the Spartans took were boring, but they worked. Their tactics showed that picking the right battle/battle site (aka scope) and having everyone do their role in a coordinated fashion (process/procedures) allowed 300 Spartans to hold off over a million Babylonians. In fact, it wasn’t until the Babylonian leaders shifted gears and found the hidden passage, which out flanked the Spartans, that the Spartan blockage fell. That is the one time heroes are useful in this sort of situation – changing the posture, process, and approach aka the overall strategy.  Without that breach, the Spartans could have hung out forever. Similar results occurred with the Roman army in Britain during Boudicca’s rebellion – so this isn’t a random aside.

So what does this say about fancy bells and whistles? Well, it was the Babylonians that used all the cool tools, special units, and other fancy/sexy things.  None of that worked or mattered. If anything the fancy gear was a distraction from the pain. Pain is necessary to motivate the participants to change the tactics to something that works. The better you manage an organization’s pain, the better run that organization is. In fact the more tactical heroes you have present in an organization, the more Babylonian like an organization tends to be and the less pain you actually feel and use. The lack of pain is what keeps the organization in a rut as there is little pressure to change.  And humans only change if their tried and true assumptions and approaches completely and utterly fail and they are forced to try something else. This is especially true with tactical heroes. That means people must feel pain to make a paradigm shift of any kind. So the problem is that often tactical heroes are so successful that the leaders not only feel no pain, they have no clue that there is any sort of problem to begin with… that is until the tactical hero leaves and everything comes crashing in like a ton of bricks.

Where heroes are need is on top to restructure things. In the 300 example that occurred when the leaders of the Babylonian army were so humiliated that they started looking around. At that point the Babylonians finally sneaked around and attacked the Spartan’s rear. Once this sort of restructuring occurs, there is no immediate need for tactical heroes and day to day drama disappears. The blockages clear. Things just work.

Unfortunately the drama can be addictive in this ADHD/OCD/Aspergers-rich industry – so this sort of shift is easier said than done and as a result tactical heroes leave when things run more smoothly. That is where the real challenge begins for a leader. How do you find the real problems and as such the real drama in an organization to keep your heroes engaged?

Success isn’t sexy nor exciting most of the time, but that is sort of the point.  As the unlikely, but purported Confucian curse goes – “may you live in interesting times.” The curse isn’t something to aspire to. 😎

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