“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin
To see people who were once labeled as ‘sheep’ taking initiatives and putting their ass on the line is the greatest gift of all. Finding out that I am the one now needing to stretch in order to keep up with my Oompa Loompas – instead of the other way around – is a great experience.
When I was appointed as the CIO of our organization I was completely new to this business. I have a background of engineering and until then I had been managing global projects in a multinational environment of product launches, markets and affiliates. All of a sudden I was propelled into the local niche of an HR service provider. Needless to say that my background no longer needed to be at the top of my mind. But then,… what else needed to be at the top of my mind instead?
From the beginning I made it clear to my department that I had very little knowledge of the sector and that I would need all of their involvement to make the turnaround we much needed. In the beginning that seemed to be radical idea; and I was featuring as the foreign element.
In the beginning the response was quite poor and I remember the skepticism in our department. Soon enough I discovered what people had warned me for: “they are a bunch of sheep”; “dedicated followers with zero sense of initiative”. On top of that, most of the knowledge was trapped in people’s heads and within a growing organization this became more and more a continuity risk.
So there I was with my newly declared Charlie Bucket Approach. First I would learn about the current set-up. Next, I would get as much information as possible. And then – and only then – I would determine a strategy. The only certainty I had at that time: I was not going to pull it off without the Oompa Loompas.
In Roald Dahl’s story, Wonka’s workforce – the Oompa Loompas – come from Loompaland, a small and isolated island in the Pacific Ocean. They are funny-looking characters with strange habits. No use in explaining that my IT department was also being looked at as if they were Oompa Loompas.
Apart from being very busy at all times, nobody really knew what the IT-people where up to, what they were working on, which priorities they followed or whether it was what the business most needed.
Reengineering the Chocolate Factory
With the Charlie Bucket approach in mind, I choose to take on one challenge at a time. For us, the starting point was going to be IT governance and transparency. But it turned out that the Oompa Loompas were not so keen on it.
I remember the discussions we had on serving the internal customer. When I arrived, the Oompa Loompas were providing enhancements and fixes every day. The customer said ‘jump’ – and they said ‘how high’? No thinking, just jumping on whatever they were asked to do.
As an outsider I could easily see that we would definitely benefit from redefining ‘service’. And this included saying ‘no’ from time to time and bringing structure to the work.
In the beginning the Oompa Loompas resisted this change, arguing that this would slow down the service to our customers. And eventually it would. Their argument was a valid one. But when we sat down with the customers, we discovered that they did not really need daily enhancements and fixes in their systems. Rather, they prefered transparency, focus and guidance.
This was a surprise to the Oompa Loompas and ever since that moment, they have taken the habit to ask ‘why’ more often and to challenge the things we have taken for granted.
I was lucky to draw Charlie’s golden ticket because I have spent half of my career in Loompaland. I can decode their language and respond in a way they understand. The one thing I learned in Loompaland is never to underestimate what these weird creatures are capable of. And by now I can say with confidence that I would never have been able to reach this level of change in our department without their involvement.
But challenging their status quo is one thing; gaining their trust is another. Because to the same extent as I was rocking the boat, I needed to provide the psychological safety for people to grow. That’s when I found out that there is a direct relationship between the trust you gain and how vulnerable you allow yourself to be.
In our particular case I decided not to pre-fill the 15 new positions in our department ourselves. Filling the positions myself by appointing people directly would have been the safe-game. Instead we carefully crafted an internal labor market where everybody could apply. My biggest fears at that time: to have a zero response or the complete opposite – a tsunami-response.
Luckily none of that happened. What’s more, people really opened up, as if they had turned a switch in their head. The most touching proof is the one Oompa Loompa in his fifties, who made a complete career-shift. This is a guy who could easily settle for inertia and dozing-off-until-retirement. But he didn’t. To my surprise, he abandoned his burned-out past and is now a dynamic learner and a responsible initiative taker.
Managing Oompa Loompas
I am sure that other organization also have their Oompa Loompas. And I am convinced that – there too – these people are undervalued. So consider the following two points whenever you are in charge of the Oompa Loompas of your organization.
1. How to recognize them
Oompa Loompas are always busy, dedicated and hard working. However, nobody really knows what they are doing and most of the times they look a little distant and weird. This is not good for their reputation and that’s a shame because they are valuable to your organization. Don’t mistake their distant looks for disloyalty towards the organization, and don’t assume that you can put them all in one and the same category. They are a colorful subculture.
2. How to coach them
You have to know that Oompa Loompas have the capacity to engage into the most complex problems of your organization and solve them. However, sometimes they too can get lost in this complexity.
Albert Einstein once said ‘You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.’ Therefore there are three rules I always apply in Oompa Loompaland:
– I keep it simple and I tell them “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, forget it”;
– I tell them to make sure to tell their customer what they are working on and what the customer can expect next;
– I use metaphors to explain where we are heading and what we are trying to achieve; this gets us all on the same wavelenght.
As for this metaphor of Charlie and the Chocolate factory, it is probably the one that makes most sense for myself. Because thanks to this metaphor I realized that I was just the Charlie who made the change possible. They were the Oompa Loompas who actually fueled it, completed it and sustained to the present day.
Behind every successful Charlie there is a dedicated team of Oompa Loompas.