Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Like The Idea Of Superheroes… And Neither Should Your Organization

The other day I listened to a great discussion on a podcast from The Forward, with host Lance Armstrong.  The guest was Neil deGrasse Tyson, popular astrophysicist, (6.74M Twitter followers for an astrophysicist? wow!) Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and host of The Cosmos. (Lance refers to him as a “rock-star” astrophysicist)  Neil commented on a variety of topics, from cosmic perspective, to the future of NASA, to science in schools, to what drives innovation, to the influence of his parents, and on how there are a higher number of microbes in one linear centimeter of your colon than the number of total human beings ever born.

I found his take on these and other topics to be humorous, logical, warm and inviting, and grounded in a long-term vision vs. knee-jerk short term reactions.  Science in schools?  He didn’t want to prohibit a state like Texas from teaching creationism if they chose to do so, he just wanted to make sure that state’s choice didn’t automatically proliferate throughout the rest of the country without it being their choice as well, and to make those responsible aware of the potential long-term economic impact that choice may have.

One discussion caught my ear from a Lean standpoint.  At 40:00 in, Neil has been discussing his father and family upbringing, how his parents nurtured their children’s interests, and then Lance asks “was he your hero?”  Neil responds “I tried not to have heroes, because a hero – what is a hero… I like what Carl Sagan said about superheroes one day – he didn’t like the idea of superheroes, because they make the rest of us complacent – oh, there are problems in the world, the superhero will take care of it, i’ll sit back and watch that happen…. a superhero allows people to not have to take responsibility over their fate.

This next statement may be an over-generalization, but I’ve seen it discussed enough I feel it is broadly applicable:  Employees in larger organizations have historically been rewarded for being the superhero.  They come through in the clutch, they bring knowledge and experience no one else has, they get results.  Oh, we have a difficult quality problem?  Bring in the specialist.  She’ll help us solve it.  Oh, that machine isn’t working right?  Call in Jim, he’s the only one trained on how to get it back up and running, he’ll know what to do and help us save our production numbers this shift.  These organizational superheros get the praise and recognition, get the most high-exposure assignments, and tend to get the highest performance ratings and promotions.  So… what’s wrong with this model?  Why wouldn’t I want to assign the most important projects to the people that tend to get the best results?  Why wouldn’t I want to reward my high performers so they want to stick around my organization, continuing to drive great results?

There isn’t technically anything wrong with that concept.  Many organizations have done (and still do) just fine with that model.  Wrong isn’t the right word to use.  A more complete description would be that it is your current state, but that the organization could evolve to be more efficient overall, could realize a higher potential utilizing all of its resources to their maximum capabilities, and be built to deliver and sustain results over time.  In an organization where superheros can thrive, it is as Carl Sagan (possibly) said – the rest of us can become complacent.  We may see a problem, and just say oh, Robert will be able to solve that for us, let’s just wait until he has some time free up.  We wait.  And while we wait, the waste caused by that problem continues.  Perhaps it grows. Perhaps it festers.  The benefit you would gain from improving the problem has been delayed.  And perhaps specialists like Robert get tired of operating in a crisis or high-pressure mode all the time and leave for another company environment.  What do you do then?

What’s the alternative?  An organization where everyone solves problems.  A community of scientists, a community of problem solvers, an organization where everyone drives improvement, from the shop floor to the executive office.  Instead of waiting for Robert, anyone can take on the problem, or the team can work on it together. No need to call in a specialist – let’s improve the situation now.  What does it take to build this type of an organization?

  • Balancing rewards equally between building capability in team members and achieving results
  • Rewarding solving problems to root cause vs. quick temporary countermeasures that make you feel good in the short term
  • Setting the expectation that everyone will learn to solve problems – and following it up with leadership modeling those behaviors
  • Asking questions rather than providing solutions or instructions, which empowers the team to think rather than simply to execute

So Neil’s comment about superheroes should really ring true with those who are in the midst of lean transformation.  And by all accounts, Neil is a pretty smart guy.  It isn’t about creating Lean Superheroes.  It is about studying your current organizational superheroes – what skills and knowledge do they have that enables them to consistently deliver results?  What about those capabilities can we extract from them and move from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge that anyone can use?  How can I build those capabilities into the rest of the organization?  And most importantly, how can I enable my team to evolve into a community of scientists?  What obstacles are holding us back?

Take the time and reflect – do you have an organization that looks to its superheroes to solve problems?  If you do… is it possible this part of your culture is a reason your transformation is being held back?

 

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