Your Initiative Needs a Canary

“Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) can be credited with many of the agency’s most flamboyant successes in planetary science. That’s why the aerospace world was surprised last year by the lab’s failure to deliver an asteroid probe on time, a stumble that NASA responded to by postponing a JPL-led Venus mission. A sobering report issued by an independent review board in the fall concluded that the lab simply has too many missions and not enough experienced engineers to pull them off.

“’The things they do [at JPL] require incredible people to do it,’ Thomas Young, former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and chair of the internal review board, said earlier this year. ‘They just don’t have the manpower they need to do the missions.’ … The delays are a stark reminder that JPL needs to be firing on all cylinders at a time when missions are more complex.” From the Washington Post.

How did things get so far behind that major projects were deferred, putting NASA’s reputation at risk? Someone had to know trouble was brewing.

Have you heard the phrase “canary in a coal mine?” Canaries are particularly sensitive to carbon monoxide and other gases. Miners looked to the canary for an early warning of trouble. Change leaders have the same job. With a focus on the people side of change, our job is not only to promote buy-in and excitement, but to be ultra-sensitive to the flipside: flagging motivation, cynicism, and exhaustion. We are often the only people keeping an eye on the capacity level of employees to embrace change. Not a simple task, because not only is everyone’s capacity different, it varies from day to day and even hour to hour. 

What are the signals that trouble is brewing? Where should we be sniffing around? Consider:

  • Employees are the first to sense when leaders are unsure of the path forward. 
  • Employees know when something ‘just won’t work,’ even if they don’t say so.
  • Employees immediately recognize what a change will cost them even while you’re talking about benefits. 
  • Employees know who is likely to resist.

They know more than you. With the right relationships, you can tap into that knowledge. If you aren’t making connections with a variety of people at the frontline, you won’t know when things are becoming toxic. If resistance achieves critical mass, it will be much harder to get things back on track.

In the coalmine of change, you are the canary. You can only be effective to the degree you’re sniffing in the right direction, tapping into the environment.

Thoughtfully yours, 
Jeff Skipper

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