Nurse Darlene was walking past an incubator when she glanced at the baby inside.
Something was not right.
The machine the baby was hooked to showed that her vitals were normal. The Registered Nurse (RN) told Darlene that the baby was eating and sleeping well and that its heartbeat was strong.
But Darlene noticed that the baby’s skin was slightly mottled instead of the usual pink. Its belly seemed distended. Blood from a pin-prick in its heel was visible as a blot of crimson on the Band-aid rather than a small dot of red.
Darlene opened the incubator and touched the baby. It grimaced but didn’t cry. Nothing seemed wrong.
Yet, Darlene told the attending physician that they needed to start the child on intravenous antibiotics. The doctor deferred to her judgment and ordered medication and a series of tests.
The lab test showed that the baby was in the early stages of sepsis, a potentially fatal whole-body infection caused by a severe infection. The condition was aggravating so rapidly that the baby would’ve died had they waited any longer.
Instead, the baby made a full recovery thanks to weak signals Darlene noticed and her timely, decisive action.
Weak Signals in the Business World
Weak signals are strong indicators that something is a little haywire. They’re not exclusively visible to people on the ground but also to those on top in the hierarchy.
Nor are they exclusive to high-reliability organizations (HROs) like hospitals, nuclear reactors, and fire engine companies. For non-HRO companies, such signals include loss of customers, processes no longer yielding expected outcomes, ignorance about changing customer preferences, unhappy employees, and more.
When ignored, such weak signals have devastating consequences that leave people too paralyzed to respond.
Take disruption. It gets cited as the main reason why the average age of an S&P 500 company will shrink to 12 years by 2027 compared to 33 years in 1964.
But companies don’t get pushed into oblivion overnight. The process happens slowly, like the tortoise that crosses the finish line while the hare takes a nap.
Jeff Bezos calls the beginning of this process, “Day 2.” He explained it thus:
“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by an excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death… To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.”
In other words, companies get plenty of weak signals before their deepest fears come true.
Research shows that well-functioning teams distinguish themselves by being able to detect weak warning signals and taking strong, decisive action.
But most people, teams, and companies are ill-equipped to notice and address weak signals.
What makes well-functioning teams exceptional performers? What makes them stand head and shoulders above the rest? Here are five aspects and how leaders can drill them into their teams.
1. Openness to Change
Human beings suffer from various cognitive biases. The confirmation bias, where we tend to interpret new and existing data as confirmation of our existing theories, is one of them.
This bias makes people dismiss data that doesn’t conform to their beliefs, and build their own realities instead of acknowledging what really happens. As a result, they can’t spot danger even when it stares them in the face.
But leaders of well-functioning teams don’t base their decisions on closed-doors discussions.
Instead, they defer to the judgment of people closest to the ground (like the physician and Darlene in the opening incident). They update their own understanding of how things function by encouraging people to point out gaps in their mental models.
They also collect perspectives from outsiders. For instance, every meeting at Big Basket has an empty pair of shoes. These shoes belong to the customer and members step in them while proposing an idea.
Takeaway: When you keep trying to prove yourself right, you turn close-minded. When you try to prove yourself wrong, you become humble and wise (which are important leadership qualities).
2. Attacking Problems, Not People
For years, officials at King’s Cross subway station knew that fire safety posed a serious threat. Yet, nobody addressed it because departments didn’t want to cross into each other’s territories. If someone did, they were politely reminded that the favor would be returned.
The result of such a truce was a fire in 1987 that killed 31 people and injured 100.
Unofficial truces and the politeness create protocols that get work done. But they also create thick silos where people go to any lengths to protect their territory, often at the expense of the company.
Well-functioning teams, on the other hand, break down silos and work across departments towards common goals. They are what Andy Grove called “aggressive introverts” at Intel — people who solve problems quickly, objectively, systematically and permanently.
Takeaway: To make faster, sounder, and more collective decisions, focus on goals more than political correctness. Set aside office politics and be okay to rock the ship when it really matters.
3. Building a Repertoire of Responses
Until the 1960s, pediatricians and radiologists treating children didn’t consider the possibility that parents could hurt their own children, mainly because they didn’t know what to do next. When social workers came on board, they said, “Child abuse happens, and we know how to handle it by providing protective services.”
Once physicians knew how to deal with child abuse, they could acknowledge its occurrence and the treatment for child abuse accelerated.
Most companies stick their heads in the sand when they don’t know how to respond to imminent danger, hoping it’ll pass them by. That’s why they avoid engaging in content marketing, refuse to embrace technology, and stick to archaic systems which turned obsolete a decade ago.
But well-functioning teams possess an expanded repertoire of knowledge because they include members across departments and communicate openly as mentioned in point 2. This knowledge equips them to address complex issues and take quick action.
Takeaway: The greater the repertoire of responses your team has, the more it can acknowledge complexities and deal with reality.
4. Embracing Failure
Failure in the corporate world often gets isolated and culprits suffer leaders’ wrath. This is why most people prefer to stick to predictable, secure and monotonous routines.
When this becomes the culture, companies end up as sitting ducks when the competition comes for their jugular.
Well-functioning teams understand that no failure is final, but is a stepping stone to learning and innovation. They see mistakes as a sign that the system is a little haywire.
The Wright brothers failed hundreds of times on their way to inventing manned flight. Post-It Notes were a result of failures getting openly discussed at 3M.
Aim for a 5% improvement to avoid failure and your people will do the same tasks for longer hours. But aim for a 25% improvement and you’ll force people to think outside the box, learn from failures, and devise creative ways to achieve goals.
That’s when you don’t just get better at spotting danger but also at noticing and cashing in on future trends, the rewards for which could be 1000X growth.
Takeaway: Failure is far more useful than you think. Use it to learn, to fix systemic gaps, and to disrupt yourself constantly.
5. Conducting Periodic Reviews
On the deck of Navy aircraft carriers, officers and crew never assume that the system will work by itself.
They listen for subtle signs of tension in pilots’ voices, and walk the ship many times looking for “foreign objects.” They review every aircraft landing that doesn’t catch the third arrestor cable along with the pilot to spot and correct the causes of deviation.
Most companies dismiss simple actions as trivial in their daily pursuit of bigger priorities. But these trivial tasks can create a huge impact.
Leaders of well-functioning teams act differently. One of their leadership qualities is the diligent focus on basics. They train people constantly to become better at spotting and addressing weak signals early.
Well-functioning teams also constantly review their own performance to raise the benchmark.
Takeaway: Some problems should be solved, others should get left alone, but some shouldn’t exist at all. The most effective way to eliminate problems that shouldn’t exist is to coach your people and measure the output.
When asked how she knew that the baby was unwell, nurse Darlene said that she carried a “mental picture of how a healthy baby looks” in her head.
Most people and teams know when something is not right. Well-functioning act on this feeling rather than sweeping it under the carpet. That’s how they form stronger mental pictures of how things should look and quickly swing into action when something seems “off.”
The world is not rational and orderly. Nothing goes according to plan. Accept this and you’ll be better prepared to handle challenges that come your way.