As much as I love my home state of Oregon, I am deeply connected to Hawaii. I grew up on Oahu and the spirit of the islands is still alive and well in my soul—though I am a mainland “Haole.” There is wisdom in the islands that comes from living close to nature and connecting to others through “talking story.”
On a consulting trip to Honolulu, a local businessman was lamenting the challenges of Oahu’s considerable transportation and traffic problems. We talked about lite rail solutions, traffic restrictions and fee-zones (like Singapore or London), and other substantial “game changing” strategies to make Oahu “work” for residents, businesses, and tourists.
The local just shook his head and looked disgusted. He said,
“I’ve been watching this cycle for years. We all know it is bad and getting worse. Every couple of years somebody comes with a big solution, sometimes with real funding and good data; but it never works. We tear it all down and we are right back where we started.”
“It’s like you get a bunch of crabs and you got em’ in a bucket. You watch the crabs and they will be climbing and scratchin’ trying to get out of the bucket. One or two will make it to the top and then you gonna see the other crabs reaching up and pulling the other bruddha down.”
“That’s the way it is when we try to make big changes. Somebody brings a good idea and the rest of us just pull it down…”
In our book Evolutionaries, Carmen Voilleque and I explore the way that some leaders seem to be able to “get out of the bucket” and help others out as well. Evolutionary leaders change the circumstances that all too often create “lose-lose” scenarios for people who are just trying to do the right thing and make the world better, cleaner, nicer, safer, etc.
In this post I am going to share three situations where the “Crabs in the Bucket” problem is alive and well. Then I will share some specific tips for breaking this negative spiral.
Anywhere that is Someplace Else
I have worked with dozens of state associations all across the country; like trade groups, non-profits, government agencies, health care agencies. Let’s try something. Take any state name and fill in the blanks to the following sentence: “Northern __________ is completely different than Southern _________.” It’s true right? Northern New Mexico is very different than Southern New Mexico. It can be anything: East coast versus West coast; same thing. Rural versus urban; huge differences.
Whenever people from different regions come together to find a shared solution the “us and them” division shows up instantly. One of the main reasons that Todd Davidson and Scott West were called out as Evolutionaries in our book is that they figured out how to beat this problem. Travel Oregon represents a powerful STATEWIDE resource that somehow manages the magic of creating cohesion and opportunity for travelers to enjoy everything that Oregon has to offer. So, if you see a leader that can overcome regional divisions and create shared solutions—you are dealing with a powerful evolutionary.
We generally love the opportunity to get with leadership teams to brainstorm and innovate. As a consulting firm, we believe that we bring real strength in “Strategic Ideation”. What new plays can we run? What resources can we leverage? How can we find better efficiency AND enhance quality? In the best of these meetings, participants leave with a half-dozen actionable ideas and a clear sense of priority and direction.
Sometimes, however, we realize that we are in the middle of a toxic waste dump of resentment, bitterness, frustration, and apathy. While waiting for the last few participants to arrive at a strategic brainstorming meeting a VP whispered to me, “Everyone here knows that the last thing you would do with a good idea is trot it out at one of these meetings. We turn into an angry mob and stone the life out of anything that would mean a big change. If you have a good idea, it is best to run it through the back channels, so don’t expect too much out this little bit of theatre.”
This is classic “crabs in the bucket” behavior. Group settings become nothing more than public instantiations of leadership failure. In Evolutionaries Chandra Brown makes the point that leaders are required to be wide open to all ideas; half-baked, impossible, crazy, dramatic, expensive, or otherwise.
Super Models and Best Practices
As a traveling person who struggles to eat right, I am not helped by the “Great Abs in Two Weeks” magazine covers featuring 20-something guys with washboard muscles. The air-brushed perfection of the magazine super model stands out in much the same way as case study best practices served up at conferences and professional meetings.
In a conference of health care professionals one speaker actually said, “We are calling this (community health intervention) a best practice because we had a great outcome, but the truth is we are not sure we can replicate the effort ourselves. We are not sure it will work again…”
Don’t get me wrong I love a good “best practice” as much as the next person, but all too often these case studies are so specific—and the principles of execution are so proprietary—that the result is nothing more than publicly acceptable bragging. When a company offers a “best practice” that is really unrepeatable, it is like watching a chef on TV tell you how to make something while leaving out key steps and secret ingredients. And audiences know that what they see is not as clear or easy as it seems.
During an interaction with a client a few years back, one person said, “Such and Such Bank just rolled out remote deposit capture for smart phones; we can do it too.” A more senior leader took the roll of the crab-in-the-bucket and said, “Are you kidding? I can’t get tech support for my own PC, we messed up the last upgrade of our home banking system, and we are stuck with crappy vendor for the next two years. Let’s just try to get the basics right.”
The message is clear, if you can’t be a super-model, go ahead and have the donut—it doesn’t matter anyway. Instead of considering how a new tech innovation was allowing a competitive bank to make headlines, or investigating the implications of smart phones for other financial services, the senior team member just shut down the conversation and demonized an entire department in his bank.
The Evolutionary Approach
Regional differences, buried frustration and anger, and lame comparisons to peers and competitors are just three examples of the situations that trigger the “crabs-in-the-bucket” communication that sabotages success. Evolutionary leaders understand that these negative spirals need to be avoided and that they almost always start out of ignorance or selfish intentions.
- They understand that differences are not bad. Differences create opportunities for complementary cooperation. Differences create diversity and mitigate risk. Differences enable more options in planning and development. Differences are rarely relevant when we talk about core principles for social and business well-being; everyone wants to be happy, healthy, successful etc.
- Evolutionary leaders invite big thinking and welcome people that are smarter than them to the table. As Navy SEAL Commodore Steve Ahlberg says, “Egos are checked at the door.” The best ideas can come from anywhere. CEO Geoff Gilmore wants his team members thinking and problem solving all the time. Creativity and innovation are not capacities that we can just switch on and off. They require a truly collaborative, supportive, and safe environment if they are going to show up in your company.
- Evolutionary leaders know how to tease out the usable elements in their assessment of excellence in others. Gary Easterling, the CEO of United Federal Credit Union said, “The best practice from a competitor or consultant is just a hint. It is another point of information and comparison. It is not about following anybody, but it is about being smart as we build our own future.”
As I conclude this blog post I am struck by the number of examples that have popped in my head of communication situations that reflect the “crabs-in-the-bucket” principle. I am sure it would not be difficult for you to think about situations where you watched as others actively tore each other down.
At the end of the day it is about the ability to suppress your own immediate fears and concerns and to work in concert with other agendas—even if it means a more indirect path to fulfilling your own goals. As you read about Evolutionaries in our book, you will learn about the specific methods that allow leaders to think and act big, to do what others see as impossible, and “think out of the bucket.”
If you have other examples of this phenomenon, I would love to hear them. Write to me at email@example.com. You can also send suggestions for solving Oahu’s traffic problems.