Putting It Back in the Box

Putting Back in the Box by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Matthew Hull, Available at www.morguefile.com

When I was a kid, I had a love/hate relationship with the game of Monopoly. The idea of the game intrigued me. It was fun to buy properties, especially utilities and railroads, and charge rent to my opponents. I gravitated to the concept of ownership and the independence that goes along with it. Erecting houses and hotels was a thrill. The part I didn’t like so much was losing.

Oddly, some people seem to win that game more than other people. My older brother was one of those. I suppose that’s why he liked to play Monopoly so much. So, he often asked me to play (or perhaps our mother, when she had heard enough of “I’m bored!” demanded we go play a game). I remember playing many times, but I never remember beating him. That’s probably selective memory, but I’m sure my win-loss record was rather poor. (Nevertheless, I kept playing, which probably contributed to learning the value of having fun just for the sake of having fun.)

The nice thing about Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, Axis & Allies, and others (all games I lose more than I win) is that when the game is over, it all goes back in the box. The playing pieces are removed from their wining or losing positions and go into the box. The money, houses, or armies are wiped off the board and put back in the box. The score sheets are crumpled up and thrown away. When the game is over, the game is over. It just doesn’t matter anymore. A healthy game-playing attitude forgets what happened and you move on.

On one level this attitude is helpful in business, but on another level it is not. The forget-it-and-move-on attitude can be helpful in a couple ways. Leaders and followers alike have a tendency to mentally and emotionally bring work home. It is generally much more healthy to “put it back in the box” before reconnecting with family and loved ones each day. Not doing so increases personal stress and puts undo pressure on the family. This has the effect of making it harder to perform well at work, thus creating a vicious cycle.

Another reason to put it back in the box at the office is when a minor battle has been lost. Perhaps a sale was lost, a promotion was missed, or an argument wasn’t won. Put it back in the box … but only after taking time to reflect and determine what could be done better next time. Afterward, be sure to put it back in the box. Don’t dwell. Move on.

When and what should NOT be put back in the box? One of the most frequent mistakes of inappropriately putting it back in the box is the millions of 3-ring binders gathering dust on office shelves across the globe that contain organizational strategies and strategic initiatives. These plans were often developed to solve some tremendous problem: a new vision statement, training initiative, new research project, or leadership development program was developed with many hours and often at great expense.

I have witnessed many leaders send a strong message of encouragement to the constituency. “I have heard your voice on this issue and we’re going to hit this problem head on. We are going to work with a cross-functional team and a group of consultants to solve it.” I am amazed at the percentage of these projects that are put back in the box once completed.

This is frustrating for mid-level leaders and followers alike because of the appearance that leaders have been disingenuous and misleading in pursuing these projects. Scarce financial resources were committed and, more importantly, people invested hard work to see the results put back in the box. We were serious about this effort when it started, but it got shelved at the end.

Why? Why did it get put back in the box?

Leaders, do you understand how de-motivating this is to followers?

Followers, challenge your leaders on this. Ask them what happened to Project X. Be respectful and listen; sometimes there are legitimate reasons. However, where appropriate work with your leaders to find a way to pull that project off the shelf and take it out of the box. The next time a new project is initiated, build accountability into the project to encourage enactment. (Don’t be dogmatic about this though. Remember, there are legitimate reasons to put some of the projects back in the box.)

Honestly, I would like to know what happens when viable projects are put back in the box. Is it fear? Is it a resource shortage? Is it lack of leadership? Legitimate reasons need to be shared with the constituency affected. Other reasons need to be understood so that projects are not unnecessarily put back in the box.

When have you seen projects unnecessarily put back in the box? What are legitimate reasons for doing so? How can we prevent this phenomenon?

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