The Jenga situation

When an organization first sets out to have an impact, it discovers that it has no customers, no clients, no constituents. So it shows up, it makes an offer and it listens.

The early days are exciting. Customers are seen and heard and served. Variations are created and value is produced as problems are solved.

In the early days, the most celebrated employees are the ones who figure out what someone needs and then determines a way to fill that need.

Once the organization gains traction, it’s possible that a short-term profit maximizer will join the team. They push to treat the customers as replaceable flanges, almost identical, income opportunities to be processed. And the employees? They are expenses, not part of a team.

Kids play a game called Jenga. In it, identical wooden sticks are built into a tower, and you win the game by removing sticks without having the tower fall over.

It can seem like the fastest way for a stable business to increase profits is simply to remove some sticks. Process more flanges with fewer expenses. Lower overhead, measure the easy stuff, do it faster.

A simple service business example to prove the point:

Labcorp had a valuable idea: blood tests at scale, well-priced and convenient for doctors and patients. A nationwide chain meant that doctors didn’t have to wonder about instructions being understood. Offices in medical parks meant that patients didn’t have to go to the hospital for something that hardly needed a hospital. A large number of patients would mean that the organization would have the resources to build better calendaring and reporting software.

And then what?

Take out some Jenga pieces. Why bother with a receptionist when you can staff the entire facility with just one tech? If people have to wait an hour or two, no big deal. Don’t worry so much about turnover–simply give people too much to do, and if they quit, hire someone else. Customer service? Well, you can put up forms and offer surveys, but there’s no need to actually read them…

The Jenga situation is contagious. Once a competitor starts doing it, there’s pressure from short-term shareholders for you to do it as well. The profits that motivated growth become the entire point, a race to the bottom with no winners.

But then, often when one-too-many Jenga pieces are removed, or when technology shifts, the tower gets too shaky and someone else builds a competitor that starts the process all over again.

The biggest challenge a marketer at a big company faces is the specter of industrial short-term thinking. Going along with the bean counters might be the worst marketing mistake you can make. Beans aren’t the point of the organization, they’re a side effect.

We spend too much time dealing with shaky towers. The resilience of people connecting, of organizations evolving, of service and clarity and generative work is far too important to be threatened by a few hustlers who insist on measuring the wrong thing.