Monday, April 2, 2012

Rule #49: Border Guards

In 1968 I went to Germany to connect with my brother, Mark.

He was finishing up a Fulbright scholarship in German and when his academic program was over we took his newly purchased VW bug and drove to Prague. The Czechs were celebrating an outbreak of freedom from the Soviet Union (this was back when there was both a Czechoslovakia and a Soviet Union). Prague was filled with happy, carefree young people, students at bars and cafes, drinking beer and luxuriating in what was called Prague Spring.

We celebrated with them for a time, but finally we had to get back to West Germany (there was also a West and East Germany back then). To do that meant we would pass through an East German military checkpoint.

We pulled up to the checkpoint and a huge East German border guard armed with a scary looking sub-machine gun took our passports, looked at them dismissively, and ordered us to get out of the line of cars that had been allowed transit, and to park over in an area off to one side.

Three hours later we were still parked there. Waiting. Watching other cars pass through the checkpoint. Wondering what had happened to our passports. And looking at the big East German soldiers and their lethal-looking weapons.

Finally, my brother had had enough.

He waved one of the guards over and said in perfect German, "One of your buddies took our passports and he's probably all the way over in West Berlin by now."

The look on the border guard's face betrayed his emotions. He'd been insulted--in at least three ways.

First, who ever heard of an American who spoke perfect German--with the appropriate Bavarian accent?

Second, it was an insult to think an East German soldier would steal anything--especially from an American!

And third, no self-respecting East German soldier would ever even think of running off to West Germany!

The border guard goose-stepped back to the booth, found our passports where they'd been carelessly left lying around, and waved us through the checkpoint.

We made it--but only because my brother was brave enough to confront the border guard.

I've been telling that story lately to all kinds of groups of business people, in all kinds of companies and organizations, and all age groups and nationalities.

And I always get the same reaction: people nod. They know that each of us has his or her own border guards that keep us from growing, experimenting, innovating, listening, learning.

One man held up his hand when I told the story in his group and said, "My border guard is, I always have to be right." Another said, "I always have to be in control."

Sometimes a company's border guard isn't a person--it's a tradition. "That's not the way we do things around here." Or an unwillingness to experiment. "It won't work anyway, so why even try." Or a feeling of helplessness. "The boss will never go for that."

And, to be fair, sometimes a smart border guard is exactly what a company needs.

One of Steve Jobs' greatest strengths was his ability to say "no." When he came back to Apple, he cut off projects that made no sense, ended unfocused activities that weren't core to Apple's business. His border-guard-like focus kept Apple focused and prevented the company from wandering into areas that weren't what Apple was all about.

But for most of us, most leaders and organizations, that's not the case.

Most of the time, we get offered an opportunity to try something new, and some little voice in our heads tells us, "That's not really you!" Even if it could be. Our own border guard keeps us from innovating, from experimenting, from expanding into new, unexplored territory.

And companies and organizations that want to innovate, but keep finding themselves frustrated in their efforts--for them, the problem could well be the border guards, inside the company and out, that confine them to a small territory that is already too-well known.

"Our customers would never go for that."
"We probably couldn't sell it any way."
"Marketing would like it, but I can tell you right now, manufacturing will kill it."

There are more border guards than there are good ideas. Which is why so many successful organizations end up suffering from their own success. The border guards take over and erect a wall that keeps the organization from getting to the fresh thinking and new ideas that are on the other side of the border.

What are your border guards? Are they helpful in giving you focus? Or harmful in keeping you confined?

What are your company's border guards? Can you name them?

And what would happen if you confronted them? Maybe, just maybe, they'd produce your passport to the other side, and you'd discover a whole new, fertile area for your exploration.

It's worth a try!

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb