Stuck in the Flood Mini-Series

This is Part 2 of the mini-series from Real Work Done, Stuck in the Flood. If you missed it, read this first:
Part 1: The Flood You Can Feel But You Can’t See.

Part 2: The Leading Killer of High-Performance Everywhere

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that most organizations are flooding. 

Some are aware of it, but most become oblivious to it because a raging river feels like it’s moving fast. The water may be moving fast, but you are moving slow.

Fast water does not mean fast travel. Chaos can be easily mistaken for the feeling of productivity when we are in a constant state of urgency. 

This happens especially when our entire culture of modern management—a term that encompasses the organizational management practices of our time that are extremely common but out of sync with reality—reinforces the illusion that working hard equals being productive.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how great of a paddler I am. If I’m swept up in a flooded river, I’m going to spend more time managing its mayhem and hurdles and less time moving toward my destination.

But there are even bigger costs that a flood creates beyond productivity issues. 

In flooding organizations, leaders put people in positions where they are forced to choose between doing great work and prioritizing their own well-being. 

And in addition to the very real human cost, flooding organizations waste time and energy managing the flood instead of doing the actual work that matters most.

As a practitioner and researcher in organizational learning and change, I teach leaders how to solve problems and adapt fast with high-performing teams. 

I have spent nearly two decades working with organizations across diverse sectors—from nonprofits to universities to global Fortune 50 companies—and the patterns and connections I find between organizational multitasking, burnout, and performance are undeniable.

It should come as no surprise that flooding within an organization can cause some serious damage—just as it did to my kayak, paddle, and pride. Economist and father of lean thinking, W. Edwards Deming, calls these “heavy losses,”1 by which he means losses of immeasurable cost that fundamentally harm the DNA of an organization.

There are three critical heavy losses that I witness happening over and over again in organizations:

    1. People burn out. Burnout is more likely when employees are trying to navigate a flooding river indefinitely. The result? People are overworked, exhausted, and discouraged. People who are experiencing chronic burnout either disengage or leave.

    2. Innovation evaporates. Innovation requires learning, experimenting, and providing the space for creative thinking. In other words, it’s hard to dream up new paddle designs when you are navigating a rushing, flooding river and trying to fish for your dinner at the same time.

    3. Time and energy are wasted on solving the wrong problems. The biggest loss of all is when people lose precious time and energy trying to solve the wrong problems. It usually plays out something like this:

    The Problem: Workload is becoming unsustainable and employee turnover is becoming more frequent, so you focus on building morale.

    The Solution: Let’s add frozen yogurt in the lobby and do team-building days!


    The Problem: Everyone is overwhelmed and working too hard.

    The Solution: Let’s tell everyone they have to use all of their personal time off days before the year ends (but they’ll still need to get all of the same work done).

    When leaders only address the symptoms they see, they believe they’re taking action, but in reality, they have only added more to their infinite to-do lists and exerted more energy. 

    Unless you dig deeper and make an effort to truly understand the underlying patterns, you will get trapped in an endless cycle of chasing fixes that solve the wrong problems.

    Organizational flooding is the leading killer of high performance everywhere.

    Based on my research, there are three primary factors that are always at play in organizations flooded with competing priorities:

      1. The silent pressure to do it all
      2. The reality that change is constant and unpredictable
      3. The fetishization of output

      At least one of these factors, usually all three, are the primary enablers of flooding in every organization that I have ever worked with.

      Over the next few installments of this mini-series, we’ll dive into each of these patterns that create the conditions for flooding. 

      Keep an eye out for Part 3: The Silent Pressure to Do It All.

      Until then, take care,


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