How Leaders Can Prevent “Sudden” Fractures

Posted 03.22.2010

I’m in Phoenix this week for a meeting of companies that provide leadership and organizational development consulting and coaching. It’s a nice opportunity to learn from colleagues and I want to share with you a useful analogy I picked up today.

Hanger1 Our opening speaker was Dennis Bonilla, a managing director with General Physics Corporation. In talking with us about overcoming organizational fatigue in a tough operating environment, Dennis drew a comparison with metal fatigue. He asked us to think of what happens when you take a coat hanger and bend it back and forth until it breaks. The process is known as metal fatigue and it happens in three predictable phases that are analogous to what happens in organizations that are under pressure:

  1. The initial crack:  That first crack in a coat hanger being bent back and forth is almost imperceptible but it’s definitely there.  The same thing can happen in organizations. A crack will develop and you’re so busy doing your thing that you don’t even notice it.
  2. Progressive crack growth:  As you continue to bend the coat hanger the initial crack grows and spreads.  It’s hard to see the weakening taking place but its growing.
  3. The final sudden fracture:  It’s almost a surprise when the coat hanger breaks because it seems to be so sudden. The remaining cross structure just fractures. The organizational analog is when things seem to suddenly just fall apart. The fact is the stress was there for awhile it was just overlooked.

So what can you do to prevent those seemingly sudden break downs in organizations? Here are a few ideas:

  • Continuous inspection for initial cracks. Places to look are any drags on your team’s performance and breakdowns in core processes.
  • Continuous innovation around the differentiators that set your organization apart from the pack.
  • Continuous engagement with your customers. Make sure they’re satisfied and keep learning more about what they’ll need next.

What do you do to keep your organization strong and prevent seemingly sudden fractures?