The Easiest Management Trap to Fall Into & The Hardest One to Avoid
Bill Cottringer

“The first rule of business: Control the few controllables and manage the rest the best you can.” ~The author.

This number one rule actually applies to both the public and private sectors equally and it can help you decide what is most important and urgent to focus on. I have spent a dual career in both public service and private business and learned the hard way that the grass isn’t any greener on one side or the other, just different shades of green-brown. Success in both work milieus requires excellent time management skills. And, the best way to manage what time you have is to not waste it on trying to control the uncontrollables, but rather spend it more wisely on managing what is manageable.

For instance, in the public sector budgets are very controllable whereas in the private sector you can only manage a business to make the necessary money that controls the budget. In both the public and private sectors, internal and external influences can be either controllable or only manageable in part, depending upon the nature of the particular influence. For example, most employee processes—recruitment, selection, hiring, firing, training, supervising, team or project assignment, morale, productivity and communication systems—are only manageable at best.

Today, successful government, non-profit and business organizations have to implement, maintain and improve sustainable work processes in the way they operate, constantly. This is especially true about improving the quality of their product or service, to grow and prosper in a very competitive world that keeps getting more competitive by the minute. The key word here is sustainable. The easiest trap to fall into and the hardest one to avoid in management is to establish serial unsustainable processes, which don’t result in change or results or really much of anything besides a big waste of time.

This problem is so prevalent and is now a major determinant of success of failure in any organization. If there isn’t a sustainable hiring process, the right people don’t get hired. If there isn’t a sustainable disciplinary system, there is nothing by mayhem and havoc and all the other things those conditions bring on. If there aren’t sustainable marketing and sales processes, that there is no growth. If there are no sustainable process to measure results, then no one knows how things are going and productivity and morale will decline. No organization can even survive, let alone try to thrive, without sustainable processes in place.

So what are the keys to avoiding the trap so many good managers fall prey to? Here are a seven sound suggestions on how to do this right.

1. New processes or ways to do things better can’t be developed independently and then dumped on an overflowing plate out of the blue. When I was in the prison management business and building a brand new prison, a very expensive decision before me was where to put the sidewalks between the buildings. A very wise construction superintendent made the casual observation that it might be best to watch where the prisoner’s walk naturally and then pour the concrete where the footsteps were. The result was that the sidewalks were always used. Another good bid of advice I have often handed out myself is, never add something new to someone’s plate without taking something off of it first.

2. Sustainable processes have to be reasonably easy to sustain without obstacles. A smart manager knows that the object is not to focus on some great new intriguing process, but rather investing time and energy into knowing just how easy or difficult it is going to be to sustain and not have to replace it with yet another more intriguing process when it fizzles. Here a good manager needs to know employees and the workplace well enough to foresee the easiness or difficulty of a proposed process and all the obstacles just lingering to interfere.

3. It is the employees who sustain any process and if they don’t have the time, interest or commitment to sustaining the process, it will fade away as a waste of time accomplishing nothing. Like any new change, the idea has to come from the field, even if it has to be strategically planted there by management. Imposed changes will always get resistance—from overt or covert employee power sources, which on the flip side, can like-wise grease the wheel. If there are legitimate resistances, then they need to be listened to and overcome in the fine-tuning of the process, and the organization’s power players need to drive the process and keep it alive and well.

4. Unsustainable processes are often the wrong process to use at a particular time in an organizations cycle and so that possibility needs to be considered in an honest preparatory evaluation of the sustainability of the process at hand. Is this process the best way to increase sales in this current economic climate? Will this business shortcut result in long term losses after the small gains are lost? Will this recruiting strategy attract the right candidates for the jobs we need to fill most? Will this sensible new security procedure be too inconvenient for employees? These are the types of hard questions that smart managers need honest answers to.

5. Often good management is breaking bigger problems down into parts that are more manageable. Therefore, a huge process may be inherently unsustainable by its mere size—the time and resources it will take to develop it, teach employees how to do it, and sustain it over the long haul. It might make good sense, to pick parts of the process that are most likely to get the best, easiest and quickest results without any adverse side effects. In fact, that guide can be used in any organization—will this process help or hurt the organization?

6. Employees normally shy away from learning or going any new work behaviors that are foreign to their current toolboxes or not part of their tidy little job description. So sustainable processes require a link or bridge close to what the employees presently know and can do. The common trap to avoid here, is for management to be aware of the huge gaps that will always exist between what management knows and can do, what supervisors translate and what is heard and then realistically knowable and doable by employees. Actually one very smart sustainable process that is always needed in any organization, is one on keeping ahead of the curve regarding these ever-widening knowledge and skill gaps between managers, supervisors and employees.

7. Values play a key part in the sustainability of a work process. If these values are not in alignment with right ethics and these core values aren’t communicate and supported, the sustainability of the process never gets off the ground. Today, right ethics and values are a very hot issue in all workplaces from sports teams to dot comers. It is a very good idea for the values of any process to be transparent, so the wrong ones can be sorted out from the right ones.

With a little thought about the above suggestions and planning them carefully, critical work processes can be sustainable, at least until they accomplish their purpose, which in itself may be something to not lose sight of.

“Sustainability can't be like some sort of a moral sacrifice or political dilemma or a philanthropical cause. It has to be a design challenge.” ~Bjarke Ingels

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is Executive Vice-President for Employee Relations for Puget Sound Security, Inc. in Bellevue, WA, Adjunct Professor at Northwest University, member of IACP since 2003, along with his hobbies in being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living in the peaceful but invigorating mountains and rivers of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, “You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too” (Executive Excellence), “The Bow-Wow Secrets” (Wisdom Tree), “Do What Matters Most” and “P” Point Management” (Atlantic Book Publishers), “Reality Repair” (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Authorsden), and “If Pictures Could Talk,” coming soon. Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 454-5011 or