Lessons From the Canal

After I returned from a trip to Panama, which included a visit to its most famous structure, I learned that locks – the means for raising and lowering vessels as they traverse a canal – have been around since 300 BC. But of course, a lot has changed since the days of camels towing narrow barges through locks in the ancient Suez Canal. Today, cargo ships 1,200 feet long, and weighing more than 140,000 tons, can be towed from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the marvel of engineering and perseverance that is the Panama Canal.

As I walked along the Canal, I thought, “This is actually a good example of a disruptive tech startup.” First, the French tried to build it, and got only so far. Then the U.S.A. entered the picture, and eventually it was completed. And now, bigger and better than ever, it’s run by Panama.

As it often happens with disruptive tech, the ‘early movers’ wound up suffering the most — and not just due to mosquito-clouds and malaria. It took many rounds of investment, new leaders, new ideas, and new methods to advance the enterprise to viability. And now, it’s public. And, by all accounts, it’s a huge success, having just increased capacity to keep up with advances in the shipping industry.

This was no ‘unicorn,’ and certainly no overnight success. But, as the old palindrome goes, “A man, a plan, a Canal: Panama.” (Palindromes read the same backwards and forwards, like ‘Ana nab a banana.’) The canal, just like many other big steps forward, came from a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

There’s a deeper level to the startup analogy. The physics of the Canal works like this. Passage requires the vessel to go from sea level, over higher ground, to sea level on the other side, so the canal is divided into several segments, separated by locks. A ship enters a lock, or gateway, and after the gate is closed and sealed, huge amounts of water are pumped into the lock. When water level rises to match that of the next segment, the forward gate opens and the ship moves ahead. The reverse happens on the downward path, with water being pumped out of a lock to lower the vessel to the next-lower level. Controlling the water level – the environment within which a ship operates – serves the ship’s needs, and progress toward the goal is ensured. But a lot more than specs and construction and mechanisms that make it all work: it’s also the team.

What struck me is that these concepts and processes are similar to the physics of teaming. If a working environment is carefully calibrated to align with the needs of the enterprise, projects move upward and onward, as obstacles are overcome. But If the environment is out of sync, you’re liable to wind up somewhere between getting nowhere, and teetering at the edge of disaster. The environment I’m talking about is what people commonly call corporate culture. If it’s every-person-for-their-own-self, there might be a semblance of progress, but it won’t be reliable and, over time, it may not be sustainable. But if, instead, it’s every-person-for-the-team, and through their collective efforts they bring together exactly what that team needs, they raise the chances of success, and lower the risk of failure. Just like the water in the locks.

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Three Ways to Fail at Managing Teams

I grew up in a home where both mom and dad were active union members, and it gave me a clear message about working life: there is labor, and there is management. Labor’s job is to make stuff happen. Management’s job is to oppress labor.

I was fine with that worldview for a long time. But eventually, I grew up and, somewhere along the line, I became management. I even got to like being management. The funny thing is that my parents, the union loyalists, are the ones I have to thank for that. Here’s why: they didn’t just teach me that oppression was a bad thing. They also made me realize that it can be just as bad for the oppressor as it is for the oppressed.

Oppression is the hallmark of bad management. It’s the butt of Dilbertesque jokes about pointy haired bosses and evil functionaries, and it’s the bane of workers at all levels of organizations. Typically, oppressors are actively engaged in doing what they do, so it’s easy to vilify them for committing crimes against the workplace.

Sins of commission by management are many. Sins of omission are few, but they can be every bit as demoralizing. Here are three that I will address ad seriatum. (That’s Latin for, ‘I’m going to do this one at a time, because hitting you with all three, and no breaks in between, would be seriously uncool.’)

First, there is failure to observe. You might remember something like this happening early in your working life. It happened to Stacy on the very first job.

The team had a serious problem. Stacy was new, and bright, and identified a solution. It was simple, and it would have worked, but the manager couldn’t see it. Boss only saw Stacy, barely 21 years old, too new to know the score, and without a resume to provide credibility. Being laughed at and chided for offering such a naïve opinion was deeply humiliating, and to this day Stacy is reluctant to make suggestions.

Second: failure to nurture. Ari works as an analyst in the innovation department of a huge maker of scientific products. Ari applied three times for the company’s ‘high potential’ program, but the manager never followed through, and Ari was passed over each time. Ari is creative, smart, and well liked. The manager is not. Did the manager feel threatened, or was it just laziness? No matter. Ari has given up.

And third: failure to acknowledge. And herein lies a particularly sad story. Morgan has been in a supervisory position in a critical function of an organization for over two years. If you ask the team members, you’ll get nothing but glowing reports. But the manager gives no recognition, or support, or praise of any kind. Morgan feels unliked, weak, and fearful of job loss. Despite having opportunities to leave, and to move up, Morgan stays. Why? Because Morgan is there to serve the team and does not give up easily. And also because, in leaving, the team would no longer have a shield from the icy chill of the boss’ indifference.

Many failures are just learning experiences, but the failure of management to team well – as exemplified here – causes real damage.

So, if your work experience resonates strongly with that of Stacy, or Ari, or Morgan… or their managers! – then beware. When leaders fail to team, they eventually lead a business to fail.