Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The "Fairness" Doctrine

Too often, we leaders get sucked into the false doctrine of “fairness.” In this dangerous environment, all tasks are equally important. Resources are allocated “fairly” instead of against those tasks that will ultimately determine success. Everyone is equally good. No one is allowed to rise to the top. Mavericks are suppressed.

The fact is, in business as in life, all things are not equal. Some projects ARE more important than others. Some things we do are the organization’s main effort. That means the rest are NOT the main effort. Some initiatives, people, and business units absolutely cannot afford to fail and thus receive whatever time, energy, leadership, or resources are required to enable their success. While not necessarily “fair,” the future of the team, the company, or the military unit often depends on this unfairness.

This concept is difficult to embrace. We want everyone to believe they are the most important, that their deliverables directly and measurably impact the overall bottom line. We want people to be convinced they are #1 – even if they are not. We want people to treat their piece of the project as if it was THE most important – even if it is not. We mistake being fair for good leadership.

Leaders cannot think this way. All things are NOT equal. There is no “fairness doctrine” in business. The fact is that some people ARE more important than others. This is not to say that others are slighted, but rather that some people are special, and must be handled as such. They bring in the money. They directly lead to the team’s success. They are the future of the organization. Some projects ARE more important than others. They contribute directly to the success of the company and must be resourced with everything they need to be successful, even if those resources come at the expense of others.

Leaders who miss this point distribute resources evenly, attempting to be fair, and watch in frustration as the main effort comes up short. Instead of picking winners and losers, they let every product attain the same level of mediocrity. The same thing happens with people. Treat the superstars the same as the rest, where they cannot bloom, where they are resourced like everyone else, and they will become frustrated. Put them on the same timeline, on the “traditional” development path, and they will seek out opportunities that more suit their maverick tendencies.

Succumbing to the “Fairness Doctrine” can cause us to miss the proverbial “forest for the trees.” While it may feel good to spend time, energy, and resources equitably (the trees seem happy), too often it is this mindset that leads to poor performance and organizational failure (many of the trees really are not that happy, the healthy ones are not pruned for real growth, and the forest dies). Leaders must be able to pick out the winners and give them everything they need to be successful. Treat the main effort as the main effort…and others as secondary efforts. Don’t worry about being fair. Instead, ensure you invest in identifying the superstars, the emerging leaders, the critical projects that will determine success or failure…and give them everything they need to win.

That’s not the doctrine of fairness. That’s the business of leaders!

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