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September 10, 2014

The Many Dangers of ‘Invisible Men’

Summary:

Invisibility can be used deliberately to hide problems or shift responsibility, or inadvertently in ways that muddle lines of authority.

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.

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About the Author

Dean K. Harring retired in February 2013 as the executive vice president and chief claims officer at QBE North America in New York. He has more than 40 years experience as a claims senior executive with companies such as Liberty Mutual, Commercial Union, Providence Washington, Zurich North America, GAB Robins and CNA.

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