An Organizational Strategy Lesson from a Bicycle Tire
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
Alignment in every part of your business is critical to success
Several months ago, one of my kids wrecked while riding their bicycle. After patching up the child, we turned our attention to the bike. The damage was pretty minimal: out of adjustment handlebars, a bent pedal bracket, and a broken spoke.
I was done adjusting the handlebar in less than a minute.
I bent the pedal back almost as fast. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to do that on this bike. With the right tool in hand, the main crank was spinning freely in under two minutes.
A broken spoke.
What am I going to do with a broken spoke? I don’t have any extras laying around in the garage.
There are 32 spokes.
Do we really need 32 spokes?
Like the sheriff in an old western movie who made short work of the gun-slinging bandit, I dropped my tools back into their places before the smoke had even cleared the barrel.
“Thanks Dad!” and just like that, the bike was back fulfilling its purpose.
There’s more to this story.
But before we get to it…
How often do we do the same thing as leaders? Somebody is down. They’re all tangled up in a business decision that didn’t go the way they planned. The leader arrives, takes stock of things, and quickly patches everything up. Back to work.
Everything’s great, right?
A few days later, the bike showed up in the garage again.
“Dad, the front wheel won’t turn anymore. Can you fix it?”
I was at the workbench fixing something important. You know, the kind of repair that requires attention to detail — one that has to be done right.
But my kiddo had to stop having fun riding bikes with the neighbor. So, I stopped to see if I could do another quick patch up.
The rim was binding on the brake pad. You know, the ones that clamp on both sides of the rim? The ones that are never straight. They squeak horribly. And, you know, as I thought about it, I realized I really never liked those things.
I just adjusted the pad so it wouldn’t be in the way anymore.
It wasn’t a great fix. But, I got the wheel to spin again and the brake still worked. Everybody got back to what they were doing before.
Only, it wasn’t the brake pad’s fault.
And I kinda knew it.
How often do we do the same thing as leaders? We see a problem and we go for the most obvious answer.
“I really don’t have time to dig into this now.”
“Look, there’s something about this that I never really liked anyway. I can clearly see thats part of the problem.”
“You know, its always a problem. I’ll just make a quick adjustment.”
He’s always so difficult — I’ll just follow up with him later.
She never understands why we need to do things quickly, let’s just deal with it if she finds out.
That team always wants to spend so much time digging into…
So we take the easy way out. The quick adjustment. And we often tell ourselves that’s leadership. I made a decision and got everything running again. Now, back to the important work.
A couple weekends later, we decided to hit the trails. We were going to meet up with some other people to enjoy a beautiful fall day.
While I was getting everything ready, the kids were getting warmed up. And then it happened. Again.
“Dad, the front wheel won’t turn anymore. Can you fix it? Oh, and it has been really hard to ride it for a while. I just didn’t want to bother you again, I know you’re busy.”
Not only had I not fixed the problem, I felt like a terrible dad who was too busy to take care of his kids.
I finally had to admit that the spoke I clipped out actually mattered.
It turns out that 32 properly installed and functioning spokes are exactly what this particular wheel needs to stay straight.
I had taken a shortcut.
I clipped out the damaged spoke and never bothered to replace it. That meant the 31 remaining spokes had to take up the slack. They did exactly what they were supposed to do. But the missing spoke meant the tension all around the wheel was different. And it warped the wheel.
Worse, I compounded my first shortcut with a second one and the brakes were out of adjustment.
I had a bike wheel that wouldn’t turn. Again. What I really needed was a new rim. But I didn’t have time to get one.
And now I was late.
Four sets of eyes stared at me while I spent almost a half-hour on the most advanced patch yet. Adjusting every single remaining spoke. One…at…a…time….
I wrote earlier about organizational debt and how the tradeoffs we make accrue the same way interest grows on an unpaid credit card balance.
Leaders are responsible for tying the company's vision to execution. We do that through organizational strategy. To be successful, we need to remember 5 key things:
Our people and processes, along with the products and services we sell, all have to work seamlessly for vision to become a reality.
Work-arounds may be ok for the short term.
A leader’s job is to maintain robust organizational health. Always.
Using a patched-up solution as the new way of doing things isn’t leadership. It isn’t health. It is debt.
Unpaid debt limits our ability to create value.
This isn't about perfection.
Its about making sure the wheels on which our business run are straight and true.
If they don’t, we’re all going to end up doing extra work. Things are going to get bent out of shape. We’re not likely to enjoy the ride very much. And there’s a good chance we’re going to have trouble in the long run.
What's your organizational strategy and how much debt are you carrying that threatens to get in the way of your success?
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