Business is not about combat

Chris Galante


Metaphors for business often call on terminology from war. We "go into battle" or work goes on "in the trenches". This new year's, however, PEX Network advisor Chris Galante says it’s time for more positive ways of describing our working environments. Here’s why it’s time to ditch the combat metaphors.

As we enter the holiday season we often reflect back on the year past. We may look at our accomplishments and failures and look towards the future with hope for ourselves, our loved ones and the world in general.

This season, as I pour myself a glass of eggnog and get ready to trim the tree, I cannot help but think that I have one of the best jobs possible. Sure there are days that are more challenging than others; there are occasional characters that are straight from dark fiction. But that is the exception rather than the rule.

However, sometimes we let these dark characters cloud the language we use to describe our working environments. We talk of "going into battle" or looking out for "sniper fire". I still can’t count how many conversations I have had where "bombs were dropped" or a manager would run into my office and "throw a grenade."


Is this really how you want to think about work?

I know that these are figures of speech, but I believe that aggressive combat terminology has no place in an office environment (and I’m a combat veteran myself).

The worst offender is the phrase "In the trenches." If you are in business, the last place you want to be is in the trenches. If you are, actively seek a recruiter or find another line of work. The trenches were plagued with rats and disease, stress, mustard gas and only one way out, which was over the top into machine gun fire. Nothing was accomplished in the trenches. It is our job to fill in the trenches once we have stormed the machine gun nests and cleared the barbed wire from no man’s land.

When I took up the challenge for Lean and Process Improvement, I was also coached, that business is not war, it should not be. Yes, there can be resistance to change. But internally, when working on a product, project, program, or service everyone should be working together for the benefit of the whole. We’re not working against each other as in battle. There are no customers or suppliers - there are only team members with whom you are in a shared partnership.

I truly understood this after a conversation I had with a friend of mine that pointed out the fact with this question: "Why would you want to be in business with someone that wants to constantly refer to your life’s work as anything as cold and destructive as a war, a battlefield or being in the trenches?"

Why would you want to spend your time with that kind of stress and fear? You should only be in business for the sake of doing what you truly enjoy and surround yourself with those you trust and want to be able to experience the journey with you.

This is one of the reasons that I love the first day of an event or workshop…especially when you are pulling amazing teams together that have worked with each other in process for years and have never met face to face, disregard each other, blame each other, are going in to the event prepared to destroy pointing out all their evils and show them a thing or two.

Each team contributes with the best of intentions. They understand their part of the process and have generally done well in identifying how to make their part of the puzzle work. The biggest problem is usually a misunderstanding, a slight in translation be it in terminology or what the other team is experiencing or even lacking the knowledge of what the other team does. Even when teams hold daily virtual stand ups, exchange emails or phone calls; without the full extent of process description or walking through their routine does one see how or what the other does affect the whole of the process. Frustration mounts and without a facilitator, things can get heated, communication often stops, egos flair and process explodes.

This is when the war terminology starts to fly. It is my belief that it is our responsibility as process excellence leaders to transform the environment into something more positive. At least we can try. We can make this happen by bringing the vision from isolated silos into a unified process and show how each team is actually part of the whole.

One of the first steps is to change the terminology, especially in the use of aggressive combative expression. Remove the doom and gloom, remove the arrogance and ego.

A workshop should have some conflicting points of view. We should be able to have an open environment where we feel safe to air our points of pain and have the meaningful conversations that allow each team member understand the others point of view. Discussions of this nature are healthy and when we are running an event, it is our job to keep the environment as one that any of the members shouldn’t have to feel as though they need to don riot gear or arm their muskets. I am not suggesting we hold a campfire sing along, though sometimes it might not hurt. In the spirit of the holiday season, who doesn’t like a bit of caroling?


Process is the product, but people are the purpose


We, as change agents, process improvement, project managers, facilitators, leaders are cheerleaders for the better part of what we do. We love people, and we are fascinated with process …oh, and some of us like numbers and data too. I hope that I am correct in these statements, if not; for the sake of argument I will say I am using the royal "We".

Yes, process is the product, but people are the purpose. Perhaps I am the one that has it all wrong, that if it wasn’t for people there would be no reason to be in business in the first place. If you are not pleasing your customer, your customer has options. Whether you view "Customer" as internal or external, big C or next in line for process flow, either or, shouldn’t matter. What better way to secure your customer by giving them an environment that a safe harbor, a serene secure spring time valley, rather than pulling them down into the trenches.

Then again, you could offer them a grilled rat with a bit of stale tea...but don't be surprised when they go elsewhere.

With that, have a safe and happy holidays with a joyous, prosperous and healthy New Year!