I define “sheepwalking” as the outcome of hiring people who have been raised to be obedient and giving them a braindead job and enough fear to keep them in line.
You’ve probably encountered someone who is sheepwalking.
The TSA ‘screener’ who forces a mom to drink from a bottle of breast milk because any other action is not in the manual. A ‘customer service’ rep who will happily reread a company policy six or seven times but never stop to actually consider what the policy means. A marketing executive who buys millions of dollars of TV time even though she knows it’s not working–she does it because her boss told her to.
It’s ironic but not surprising that in our age of increased reliance on new ideas, rapid change and innovation, sheepwalking is actually on the rise. That’s because we can no longer rely on machines to do the brain-dead stuff.
We’ve mechanized what we could mechanize. What’s left is to cost-reduce the manual labor that must be done by a human. So we write manuals and race to the bottom in our search for the cheapest possible labor. And it’s not surprising that when we go to hire that labor, we search for people who have already been trained to be sheepish.
Training a student to be sheepish is a lot easier than the alternative. Teaching to the test, ensuring compliant behavior and using fear as a motivator are the easiest and fastest ways to get a kid through school. So why does it surprise us that we graduate so many sheep?
And graduate school? Since the stakes are higher (opportunity cost, tuition and the job market), students fall back on what they’ve been taught. To be sheep. Well-educated, of course, but compliant nonetheless.
And many organizations go out of their way to hire people that color inside the lines, that demonstrate consistency and compliance. And then they give these people jobs where they are managed via fear. Which leads to sheepwalking. (“I might get fired!”)
The fault doesn’t lie with the employee, at least not at first. And of course, the pain is often shouldered by both the employee and the customer.
Is it less efficient to pursue the alternative? What happens when you build an organization like Goretex or the Acumen Fund? At first, it seems crazy. There’s too much overhead, too many cats to herd, too little predictability and way too much noise. Then, over and over, we see something happen. When you hire amazing people and give them freedom, they do amazing stuff.
And the sheepwalkers and their bosses just watch and shake their heads,
certain that this is just an exception, and that it is way too risky
for their industry or their customer base.
I was at a Google conference last month, and I spent some time in a room filled with (pretty newly minted) Google salesreps. I talked to a few of them for a while about the state of the industry. And it broke my heart to discover that they were sheepwalking.
Just like the receptionist at a company I visited a week later. She acknowledged that the front office is very slow, and that she just sits there, reading romance novels and waiting. And she’s been doing it for two years.
Just like the MBA student I met yesterday who is taking a job at a major packaged goods company… because they offered her a great salary and promised her a well-known brand. She’s going to stay, “for just ten years, then have a baby and leave and start my own gig…” She’ll get really good at running coupons in the Sunday paper, but not particularly good at solving new problems.
What a waste.
Step one is to give the problem a name. Done. Step two is for anyone who sees themself in this mirror to realize that you can always stop. You can always claim the career you deserve merely by refusing to walk down the same path as everyone else just because everyone else is already doing it.
The biggest step, though, comes from anyone who teaches or hires. And that’s to embrace non-sheep behavior, to reward it and cherish it. As we’ve seen just about everywhere there’s been growth lately, that’s where the good stuff happens.
[I just reread this, and I’m betting some people will think I’m being way too harsh. That depends. It depends on whether you believe that people have a considerable amount of innate potential, that work is too time-consuming to be dull and that organizations need passion (from employees and from customers) if they want to grow. If you believe that the relationship between marketers and the people they touch is important enough to invest in. I think if you believe all that, if you believe in yourself and your co-workers, then this isn’t nearly harsh enough. We need to hurry. We need to wake up.]