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The Keys to Forming Effective Teams

America loves teams and team players, even outside of sports. What’s not to love? Team players are selfless—they set aside their personal goals and focus their talents on coordinating efforts with their fellow team members to achieve a common goal. Teams personify cooperation and collaboration and synergistic effort. And, of course, we’ve all been taught that teams inevitably generate better outcomes than individuals do.

So it’s good to be on a team, and teams do good work, which means teams and teamwork are iconic realities of life in America—socially, educationally and professionally. It really doesn’t matter whether you are a toddler, a college student, a retail clerk or a corporate executive, today you regularly find yourself slotted onto teams (or onto committees or into small groups) where you are expected to behave like a good team player.

And how does a good team player behave? According to leadership coach Joel Garfinkle, “You just need to be an active participant and do more than your job title states. Put the team’s objectives above yours and take the initiative to get things done without waiting to be asked.” He identifies five characteristics that make a team player great:

  1. Always reliable
  2. Communicates with confidence
  3. Does more than asked
  4. Adapts quickly and easily
  5. Displays genuine commitment

Seems obvious, but think of your most recent team experiences. Were your team members behaving that way? Were you? Not likely, and J. Richard Hackman, a former professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams, knows why. When interviewed by Diane Coutou for a 2009 Harvard Business Review article (Why Teams Don’t Work), he said:

Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.

Problems with coordination and motivation interfering with team collaboration and performance—doesn’t that sound like a rather modest challenge that could be resolved with more effective team management? Sure, to a certain extent. Teams are often too large; they are thoughtlessly staffed (proximity and position rather than proven talents and ability to produce results); and they are routinely launched with murky objectives, vague group member accountabilities and no formal support network for team process management. In other words, most teams don’t meet the five basic conditions Hackman, in his book Leading Teams, said teams require to perform effectively:

  1. Teams must be real. People have to know who is on the team and who is not. It’s the leader’s job to make that clear.
  2. Teams need a compelling direction. Members need to know, and agree on, what they’re supposed to be doing together. Unless a leader articulates a clear direction, there is a real risk that different members will pursue different agendas.
  3. Teams need enabling structures. Teams that have poorly designed tasks, the wrong number or mix of members or fuzzy and unenforced norms of conduct invariably get into trouble.
  4. Teams need a supportive organization. The organizational context—including the reward system, the human resource system and the information system—must facilitate teamwork.
  5. Teams need expert coaching. Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes, especially at the beginning, midpoint and end of a team project.

But there’s another challenge, and it is presented by the people who don’t want to be team players. People who, when added to a team, immediately focus their attention and effort not on being a good team player but instead on dodging work, avoiding exposure and manipulating the conscientious team players into doing more than their share of the work. This is known as social loafing (or slacking), and it describes the tendency of some members of a work group to exert less effort than they would when working alone. Kent Faught, associate professor of management at the Frank D. Hickingbotham School of Business, argues in his paper about student work groups in the Journal of Business Administration Online that social loafers can’t be successful, however, unless the other team members permit the loafing and complete the project successfully: 

…the social loafer must find at least one group member that CAN and WILL achieve the group’s goals and ALLOW themselves to be social loafed on. “Social Loafer Bait” is the term used here to describe the profile of the ideal target for social loafers.

This problem isn’t new. Max Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, conducted one of the earliest social loafing experiments in 1913, asking participants to pull on a “tug of war” rope both individually and in groups. When people were part of a group, they exerted much less effort pulling the rope than they did when pulling alone. According to Joshua Kennon, Ringelmann’s social loafing results were replicated over the years in many other experiments (involving typing, shouting, clapping, pumping water, etc.), leading psychologists to believe that humans tend toward social loafing in virtually all group activities. Kennon shared two other conclusions:

  • The more people you put into a group, the less individual effort each person will contribute;
  • When confronted with proof they are contributing less, the individuals in the group deny it because they believe they are contributing just as much as they would have if they were working alone.

I recently asked a group of friends and colleagues who have been involved in group work at school or in their jobs to respond to a brief, unscientific survey on how they deal with social loafing. Their response pattern is shown in parentheses, and, although respondents varied in age from 20 to 50-plus, answer patterns didn’t seem to vary by age group:

You are working on an important, time-sensitive project with a group of people. One of the group members is slacking off, not contributing to project work. What do you do about it? (choose one)

  • Ask/Tell the slacker to commit to the project and start contributing (40%)
  • Report the slacker to the project sponsor (3%)
  • Complain about the slacker to other team members (10%)
  • Work harder to pick up the slack and ensure the project is successful (30%)
  • Follow the slacker’s lead and reduce your commitment and effort (0%)
  • Other (17%—Most respondents who chose this reported they would employ more than one of the listed strategies)

How effective is the response you identified above?

  • Solves the problem (27%)
  • Partially solves the problem (53%)
  • Fails to solve the problem (17%)
  • Causes other problems (3%)

Respondents who took some action (talking to the slacker, or reporting the slacker to the project sponsor) were much more likely to report that their actions solved all or part of the problem. Complaining to other team members failed to solve the problem—no surprise there. And even though 30% of respondents elected to address the slacking problem by working harder to pick up the slack (earning themselves a “social loafer bait” ID badge), the effect of doing so was mixed, spread fairly evenly among solving, partially solving, failing to solve and causing other problems.

What’s not clear is why we are so willing to tolerate social loafing in group projects and why we are so reluctant to call slackers out and hold them accountable. According to Kerry Patterson, co-author of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High:

93% of employees report they have co-workers who don’t pull their weight, but only one in 10 confronts lackluster colleagues.

I suppose the reality is that unless work groups are tightly managed, they offer excellent cover for slackers—relative anonymity, little or no pressure from team members, great individual performance camouflage—with only a slight threat of exposure or penalty for not being a good team player. So the solution to the social loafer problem probably involves not only changes in how groups are formed, resourced and supported but also changes in the group work dynamic to eliminate the cover and camouflage and to illuminate how each individual contributes to the group work effort. (This is sometimes accomplished in university student work groups by using a formal peer review process to help group members hold each other accountable.)

As you might expect, Google is serious about teamwork (all Google employees work on at least one team), and Google wants teams to be successful. A recent study of team effectiveness at Google determined that five team dynamics (psychological safety; dependability; structure and clarity; meaning of work; and impact of work) are more important to successful teams than the talents of the individuals on the teams. To help teams manage these dynamics, Google developed a tool called the gTeams exercise, described by Julia Rozovsky of Google People Operations as:

…a 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics, a report that summarizes how the team is doing, a live in-person conversation to discuss the results and tailored developmental resources to help teams improve.

According to Rozovsky, Google teams reported that having a framework around team effectiveness and a forcing function (the gTeams exercise) to talk about these dynamics was the part of the experience that had the most impact. That’s not surprising, because any “forcing function” that puts a public spotlight on ineffective or unacceptable behavior makes it easier to identify and eliminate that behavior.

Given the concentration of talent at Google, I imagine the social loafers there probably boast a more refined slacker “craftiness” pedigree than most of us normally encounter. Still, I am betting the Google slackers aren’t very pleased with the light and heat generated by the gTeams exercise spotlight.

2 Heads Are Better Than 1, Right?

Everybody knows that two heads are better than one. We’ve known it since kindergarten, where we were taught that cooperation, collaboration and teamwork are not just socially desirable behaviors-they also help produce better decisions. And while we all know that two or more people working together are more likely to solve a problem or identify an opportunity better than one person doing it alone, it turns out that’s only true sometimes.

Ideally, a group’s collective intelligence, its ability to aggregate and interpret information, has the potential to be greater than the sum of the intelligence of the individual group members. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle, in Book III of his political philosophy treatise Politics, described it this way: “When there are many who contribute to the process of deliberation, each can bring his share of goodness and moral prudence…Some appreciate one part, some another, and all together appreciate all.”

But that’s not necessarily how it works in all groups, as anyone who has ever served on a committee and witnessed groupthink in action can probably testify.

Groups are as prone to irrational biases as individuals are, and the idea that a group can somehow correct for or cure the individual biases is false, according to Cass Sunstein, Harvard Law School professor and author (with Reid Hastie) of Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. Interviewed by Sarah Green on the HBR Ideacast in December 2014, Sunstein said that individual biases can lead to mistakes but that “groups are often just as bad as individuals, and sometimes they are even worse.”

Biases can get amplified in groups. According to Sunstein, as group members talk with each other “they make themselves more confident and clear-headed in the biases with which they started.” The result? Groups can quickly get to a place where they have more confidence and conviction about a position than the individuals within the group do. Groups often lock in on that position and resist contrary information or viewpoints.

Researcher Julie A. Minson, co-author (with Jennifer S. Mueller) of The Cost of Collaboration: Why Joint Decision Making Exacerbates Rejection of Outside Information, agrees, suggesting that people who make decisions by working with others are more confident in those decisions and that the process of making a judgment collaboratively rather than individually contributes to “myopic underweighting of external viewpoints.” And even though collaboration can be an expensive, time-consuming process, it is routinely over-utilized in business decision-making simply because many managers believe that if, two heads are better than one, 10 heads must be even better.

Minson disagrees: “Mathematically, you get the biggest bang from the buck going from one decision-maker to two. For each additional person, that benefit drops off in a downward sloping curve.”

Of course, group decision-making isn’t simply a business challenge–our political and judicial systems rely and depend on groups of people such as elected officials and jurors to deliberate and collaborate and make important decisions. Jack Soll and Richard Larrick, in their Scientific American article You Know More than You Think, observed that while crowds are not always wise, they are more likely to be wise when two principles are followed: “The first principle is that groups should be composed of people with knowledge relevant to a topic. The second principle is that the group needs to hold diverse perspectives and bring different knowledge to bear on a topic.”

Cass Sunstein takes it further, saying for a group to operate effectively as a decision-making body (a jury, for instance) it must consist of:

  • A diverse pool of people
  • Who have different life experiences
  • Who are willing to listen to the evidence
  • Who are willing to listen to each other
  • Who act independently
  • Who refuse to be silenced

Does that sound like a typical decision-making group to you? When I heard that description, I immediately thought of Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) in “12 Angry Men”–a principled and courageous character who single-handedly guided his fractious jury to a just verdict. It is much harder for me to imagine our elected officials, or jury pool members, or even the unfortunate folks dragooned into serving on a committee or task force at work, as sharing those same characteristics.

The good news is that two heads are definitely better than one when those heads are equally capable and they communicate freely, at least according to Dr. Bahador Bahrami of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, author of “Optically Interacting Minds.” He observed: “To come to an optimal joint decision, individuals must share information with each other and, importantly, weigh that information by its reliability.”

Think of your last group decision. Did the group consist of capable, knowledgeable, eager listeners with diverse viewpoints and life experiences, and a shared commitment to evidence-based decision-making and open communication? Probably not, but sub-optimal group behavior and decisions can occur even in the best of groups. In their Harvard Business Review article “Making Dumb Groups Smarter,” Sunstein and Hastie suggest that botched informational signals and reputational pressures are to blame: “Groups err for two main reasons. The first involves informational signals. Naturally enough, people learn from one another; the problem is that groups often go wrong when some members receive incorrect signals from other members. The second involves reputational pressures, which lead people to silence themselves or change their views in order to avoid some penalty-often, merely the disapproval of others. But if those others have special authority or wield power, their disapproval can produce serious personal consequences.”

On the topic of “special authority” interfering with optimal decision-making, I recently heard a clever term used to describe a form of influence that is often at work in a decision making group. The HiPPO (“Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”) effect refers to the unfortunate tendency for lower-paid employees to defer to higher-paid employees in group decision-making situations. Not too surprising, then that the first item on Sunstein and Hastie’s list of things to do to make groups wiser is “Silence the Leader.”

So exactly how do botched informational signals and reputational pressures lead groups into making poor decisions? Sunstein and Hastie again:

  • Groups do not merely fail to correct the errors of their members; they amplify them.
  • Groups fall victim to cascade effects, as group members follow the statements and actions of those who spoke or acted first.
  • They become polarized, taking up positions more extreme than those they held before deliberations.
  • They focus on what everybody knows already-and thus don’t take into account critical information that only one or a few people have.

Next time you are on the verge of convening a roomful of people to make a decision, stop and think about what it takes to position any group to make effective decisions. You might be better off taking Julie Minson’s advice, electing to choose just one other person to partner with you to make the decision instead. Seldom Seen Smith, the river guide character in The Monkey Wrench Game by Edward Abbey, was obviously a skeptic when it came to group decision-making, but he may have been on to something when he declared:

“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.”

Rethinking the Claims Value Chain

As a claims advisor, I specialize in helping to optimize property casualty claims management operations, so I spend a lot of time thinking about claims business processes, activities, dependencies and the value chains that are commonly used to structure and refine them. Lately, I have been focusing on the claims management supply chain — the vendors who provide products and perform services that are critical inputs into the claims management and fulfillment process.

In a traditional manufacturing model, the supply chain and the value chain are typically separate and — the supply chain provides raw materials, and the value chain connects activities that transform the raw materials into something valuable to customers. In a claims service delivery model, the value chain and the supply chain are increasingly overlapping, to the point where it is becoming hard to argue that any component of the claims value chain couldn’t be handled directly by the supply chain network.

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Which creates an intriguing possibility for an insurance company — an alternative to bricks and mortar and company cars and salaries, a virtual claims operation! Of course, there are third-party administrators (TPAs) that are large and well-developed enough to offer complete, end-to-end claims management and fulfillment services to an insurance company through an outsourced arrangement. That would be the one-stop shopping solution: hiring a TPA to replace your claims operation. But try to envision an end-to-end process in which you invite vendors/partners/service providers to compete to handle each component in your claims value chain (including processing handoffs to each other.) You select the best, negotiate attractive rates, lock in service guarantees and manage the whole process simply by monitoring a performance dashboard that displays real time data on effectiveness, efficiency, data quality, regulatory compliance and customer satisfaction.

You would need a system to integrate the inputs from the different suppliers to feed the dashboard, and you would also need to make certain the suppliers all worked together well enough to provide the ultimate customer with a seamless, pain free experience, but you are probably already doing some of that if you use vendors. You would still want to do quality and compliance and leakage audits, of course, but you could always hire a different vendor to do that for you or keep a small team to do it yourself.

Your unallocated loss adjustment expenses (ULAE) would become variable, tied directly to claim volume, and your main operating challenge would be to manage your supply/value chain to produce the most desirable cost and experience outcomes. Improved cycle time, efficiency, effectiveness, data accuracy and the quality of the customer experience would be your value propositions. You could even monitor the dashboard from your beach house or boat — no more staff meetings, performance reviews, training sessions — and intervene only when needed in response to pre-defined operational exceptions.

Sounds like a no-brainer. Insurance companies have been outsourcing portions of their value chain to vendors for years, so why haven’t they made their claims operations virtual?

If you are running an insurance company claims operation, you probably know why. Many (probably most) claims executives are proud of and comfortable with their claims operations just the way they are. They believe they are performing their value chain processes more effectively than anyone else could, or that their processes are “core” (so critical or so closely related to their value proposition they cannot be performed by anyone else) and thus sacrosanct, or that they have already achieved an optimal balance between in-house and outsourced services so they don’t need to push it any further. Others don’t like the loss of control associated with outsourcing, or they don’t want to consider disruptive change. Still others think it might be worth exploring, but they don’t believe they can make a successful business case for the investment in systems and change costs. Unfortunately, this may help explain why claims executives are often accused of being stubbornly change averse and overly comfortable with the status quo, but I think it is a bit more complicated than that — it all begins with the figurative “goggles” we use to self-evaluate claims operations.

If you are running a claims operation, you have an entire collection of evaluation goggles — the more claims experience you have, the larger your collection. When you have your “experience” goggles on, you compare your operation to others you have read about, or seen in prior jobs, or at competitors, to make sure your activities and results benchmark well and that you are staying up to date with best practices. At least once a year, someone outside of claims probably demands that you put your “budget” goggles on o look for opportunities to reduce ULAE costs. or legal costs, or fines and penalties, or whatever. You probably look through your “customer satisfaction” goggles quite a bit, particularly when complaints are up, or you are getting bad press because of your CAT response, or a satisfaction survey has come out and you don’t look good. Your “stakeholder” goggles help you assess how successful you have been at identifying those who have a vested interest in how well you perform, determining what it is they need from you to succeed, and delivering it. You use your “legal and regulatory compliance” goggles to identify problems before they turn into fines, bad publicity or litigation, much as you use your “no surprises” goggles to continually scan for operational breakdowns that might cause reputational or financial pain, finger pointing and second guessing. Then there are the goggles for “management” — litigation, disability, medical, vendor — and for “fraud mitigation” and “recovery” and “employee engagement.” Let’s not forget the “efficiency” goggles, which help you assess unit costs and productivity, and the “effectiveness” and “quality control” goggles, which permit you to see whether your processes are producing intended and expected results. And of course your “loss cost management” goggles give you a good read on how well you are managing all three components of your loss cost triangle, i.e., whether you are deploying and incurring the most effective combination of allocated and unallocated expenses to produce the most appropriate level of loss payments.

Are all those goggles necessary? You bet. Claims management involves complex processes and inputs and a convoluted web of variables and dependencies and contingencies. Most claims executives would probably agree it makes sense to regularly evaluate a claims operation from many different angles to get a good read on what’s working well , what isn’t and where there is opportunity for improvement. The multiple perspectives provided by your goggles help you triangulate causes, understand dependencies and impacts and intelligently balance operations to produce the best outcomes. So even if you do have a strong bias that your organization design is world-class, your people are the best and all processes and outcomes are optimal, the evaluation should give you plenty of evidence-based information with which to test that bias and identify enhancement opportunities — as long as you keep an open mind.

No matter what you do, however, there will always be others in your organization who enjoy evaluating your claims operation, and they usually aren’t encumbered by such an extensive collection of goggles. They may have only one set that is tuned to budget, or customer experience, or compliance, or they may be under the influence of consultants whose expensive goggles are tuned to detect opportunities for large-scale disruptive/destructive process innovation or transformation in your operation. On the basis of that narrow view, they just might conclude that things need to change, that new operating models need to be explored. Whether you agree or disagree, your evidence-based information should be of some value in framing and joining the debate.

Will we ever see virtual claims operations? Sure. There are many specialized claims service providers operating in the marketplace right now that can perform claims value chain processes faster, cheaper and better than many insurance companies can perform them. The technology exists to integrate multiple provider data inputs and create a performance dashboard. And there are a few large insurance company claims organizations pursuing this angle vigorously right now. I fully expect the companies that rethink and retool their claims value chains to take full advantage of integration of supply chain capabilities and begin to generate improved performance metrics and claim outcomes, ultimately creating competitive advantage for themselves. Does that mean it is time for you to rethink your claims value chain? I think the best way to find out is to put on your “innovation” goggles and take a look!

Digital Disruption: Coming to P&C Soon?

My wife is a project manager who is responsible for business operations at our local high school. She hired some people this summer to process and distribute new textbooks within the school, but they hadn’t finished the job and school was about to open, so she needed someone to come in at the last minute and help get the work done. More specifically, someone who would follow her instructions and would not expect to get paid. . .  so I spent a long Saturday with her at the school, schlepping pallets and boxes of new textbooks to the classrooms, getting everything in place in time for the start of the new school year.

I wasn’t happy with the work (the school was hot, the textbooks heavy) and more than once I thought wistfully about Steve Jobs, who according to biographer Walter Isaacson had targeted the school textbook business as an “$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.” Targeting textbooks seemed like a good idea to me, because not only are they big and heavy and expensive — they don’t update easily, either.

Unfortunately, Jobs didn’t live long enough to disrupt the textbook industry, but others are on the same path and, selfishly, I wish them well! Check out The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook for an interesting look at how textbook publishers and software companies and educational institutions are jockeying for position as textbooks evolve into courseware. Also, As More Schools Embrace Tablets, Do Textbooks Have a Fighting Chance? takes a look at how the Los Angeles Unified School District — second largest school district in the country — is equipping students with iPads and delivering textbooks digitally in a partnership with giant book publisher Pearson.

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, is credited with coming up with the term “disruptive innovation,” which he defined as: “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

These days, we tend to associate disruptive innovation with a new or improved product or service that surprises the market, especially established, industry-leading competitors and increases customer accessibility while lowering costs.The notion is appealing, and it makes for exciting business adventure tales featuring scrappy, innovative underdogs overcoming entrenched, clueless market leaders. Of course, disruptive innovation has been happening for a long time, even if it was called something else, but lately technology has made it easier and cheaper for upstart firms to take on industries they think are “ripe for digital destruction.”

There are some who think we’ve gone too far in adopting the disruption mantra. In her recent article The Disruption Machine, Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore squinted hard at disruption theory: “Ever since The Innovator’s Dilemma, everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: ‘The degree is in disruption,’ the university announced.”

By the way, USC’s Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation is, in fact, opening this year and will focus on critical thinking with plans, according to the academy website, to “…empower the next generation of disruptors and professional thought leaders who will ply their skills in a global area.” And, yes, that is Dr. Dre’s name on the academy!

But there are others who believe we have now entered a decidedly more treacherous innovation environment, one that Josh Linkner in The Road to Reinvention says is forcing companies to systematically and continually challenge and reinvent themselves to survive. His fundamental question is this: “Will you disrupt, or be disrupted?” And Paul Nunes and Larry Downes, who wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review Magazine in 2013 titled Big Bang Disruption (they have a book on the same topic, summarized by Accenture here), warn of a new type of innovation that is more than disruptive — it’s devastating: “A Big Bang Disruptor is both better and cheaper from the moment of creation. Using new technologies…Big Bang Disruptors can destabilize mature industries in record time, leaving incumbents and their supply-chain partners dazed and devastated.”

Should CEOs be worried? When Mikhail Gorbachev visited Harvard in 2007 and said, “If you don’t move forward, sooner or later you begin to move backward,” he was talking about politics and multilateral nuclear treaties, not companies, but the warning certainly could have been directed at CEOs. That message, refreshed to incorporate the disruptive innovation threats that have emerged since then, seems a bit unsettling: If you run a company and you aren’t dedicating resources to continually scanning the marketplace for threats and improving and reinventing your business, if you are instead taking a “business as usual” approach, you are at risk of being marginalized or supplanted by competitors who will bring new products, services, experiences, efficiencies, cost structures and insights to your customers.

Maybe not this year, or next year, but sometime soon.  It’s not a question of whether it will happen, but when. Thus Linkner’s question, restated:  Will you disrupt yourself, or be disrupted by someone else?

Of course, some industries, like property casualty insurance, may not be high on anyone’s “ripe for digital destruction” list, so maybe there’s no need for insurance company CEOs to worry. Except perhaps about Google and Amazon. I keep thinking back to Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes’ comments to The Motley Fool in 2008:  “Neither RedBox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition.” You know the rest of the story, which illustrates the real-life consequences of an incumbent underestimating and then becoming “dazed and devastated” by a competitor.

The Many Dangers of ‘Invisible Men’

I was wandering around my yard after dinner the other night, half-heartedly taking inventory of the garden chores I had been dodging, when I noticed some kids playing kickball across the street. There were six of them, three per team, and they were pretty good kickers, so they were doing a lot of base running. I chuckled when the tall kid standing on third base yelled, “Invisible man on third!” He then jogged to home plate to kick, while teammates stayed on first and second bases. Bases loaded, invisible man on third! I hadn’t heard that proclamation for a long time, but if you have ever played kickball, stickball, baseball or softball with teams of three or fewer, you know all about the invisible man.

That kickball game got me thinking about invisibility as an attribute in planning and operations and personal behavior.

Invisibility is the goal of many corporate security protocols, to protect sensitive information, to preserve privacy and confidentiality and to shield intellectual property from attack or discovery. The hope is to camouflage activities by providing cover or anonymity. Sometimes, an individual hopes to act behind the scenes or otherwise conceal activities.

Other times, invisibility is an incidental factor, because of negligence or inadvertence. Folks aren’t paying attention, and ownership, accountability and decision rights don’t get clearly established.

My first encounter with a corporate version of the invisible man came decades ago while I was working as a claims supervisor for a large insurer in Massachusetts. The job was tough, largely because the supervisor was responsible for monitoring and directing a hefty and constantly shifting portfolio of claims toward timely and appropriate resolution. Theoretically, the supervisor assigned the claims to handlers who moved them through the phases — investigation, evaluation and resolution — but sometimes there just weren’t enough available to handle all the claims. Turnover, training, vacations, hiring freezes, an increasing volume of new claims — any one of these things could create a situation where there were too many claims and not enough claim handlers. The solution? At that particular company, the solution was Mr. X.

Mr. X had a diary number and carried a large caseload of slow-moving claims reassigned from other claim handlers. Every claims supervisor had a Mr. X on staff. He was imaginary and invisible, so he wasn’t able to accomplish anything on the claims, but reassigning work to Mr. X let real claims handlers take on more new claims. Mr.X was an operating imperative.

Years later, I bumped into Mr. X’s cousins at a third party claims administrator in New Jersey. The TPA had guaranteed its clients that claims workloads would not exceed a certain number per claim handler. As the end of the month approached, if workloads were higher than promised, the TPA claims supervisors would reassign claims to themselves or to their office managers to reduce the claim handlers’ workloads to the agreed number.

Of course, the supervisors and manager weren’t imaginary or invisible, but they may as well have been because they did not actually work on the claims assigned to them. They were simply placeholders until after month end, at which point the claims would be reassigned to the claims handlers.

Invisible men also show up — or, rather, don’t show up — on committees.

Radio and TV journalist Richard Harkness is credited with drafting this definition of a committee: “A group of the unwilling, picked from the unfit, to do the unnecessary.” While I think that characterization is a bit severe, I have probably been on too many committees, so I believe it is fair to say that most committees have at least one member who fails to attend meetings and contributes little or nothing to the committee’s work. That’s awkward enough, but when the invisible committee member also happens to be the committee chair, it is even more awkward. I remember working on a committee in New York where the chair would schedule a meeting, then miss the meeting at the last minute because of a vague, recurring malady he described only as “man flu.” The committee would meet without him, cover the agenda and provide him with the minutes, then he would schedule another meeting and at the last minute. . . ,well, you have probably lived this dream yourself. The chair took credit for the committee’s work, yet he never contributed anything.

I have seen the same type of incidental invisibility in large-scale technology development and implementation projects, where it is frequently difficult to determine who, if anyone, actually “owns” the project. I always ask two questions: 1) Has any one person actually been told to set direction, manage obstacles and make decisions on the project? 2) Is there a real person who knows and understands she will be held accountable if things don’t work out as expected?

It is usually easy to identify the project sponsor and the steering committee and the subject matter experts and the IT folks who are managing the project, but the project owner is often not visible. Why? Either project ownership responsibility was never specifically assigned or, more likely, ownership was assigned to a committee. Psychologist Will Schutz was no doubt thinking of something else when he wrote this, but he did a good job of describing the inevitable, unfortunate outcome when an owner-less or committee-owned project fails to meet expectations: “Everyone is responsible, but no one is to blame.”

It is even worse when the wrong person or department is identified as the owner. I think it is crazy for human resources executives to own an employee engagement project, for example, or for IT executives to own a technology development or implementation project. These are business projects, and they should be owned by the business leader who convinced the organization that he had a problem or an opportunity, and that the project was the solution. Sure, HR and IT are there to assist, to provide expertise, structure, oversight and maybe even project management, but the business person owner needs to remain visible and accountable.