Likely owing in part to my current employment affiliation, I’ve always enjoyed the movie Argo. The film depicts events of the Iranian Hostage crisis, and specifically the CIA-led effort to evacuate six U.S. diplomats who had hidden at the home of the Canadian ambassador in Teheran. Employing what seemed like a bad idea – that of filming a fake science fiction movie in Iran as a cover to get the six Americans out – ultimately proved to be successful. My favorite part is when Ben Affleck, in the role of exfiltration planner, Tony Mendez, is asked if he has any other bad ideas. His response is, “This is the best bad idea we have, sir.”
Let’s Face It . . . We’ve All Been There
As something of an oxymoron, the terminology and simply being in a situation with the need to pick “the best bad option” is probably one that’s painfully familiar to everyone. The only difference is likely either the number of times you’ve experienced this situation or the relative size, scale and potential implications of the best bad option you were forced to select.
Familiarity Breeds Attempt
I’ve tried hard to sidestep being forced to select from “bad options,” although I acknowledged just such an instance in the recent past. In that situation, I used the term to express frustration with general philosophy/practice and the way we design our pay and benefit programs. Ostensibly, everything we do in HR is intended to meet our employees’ needs and create an environment where employees can be optimally productive. The key challenge is that every employee’s needs are different. Therefore, our one-size-fits-all approach to most pay and benefits programs virtually guarantees that no employee’s needs will be fully satisfied.
Bad Behavior Begets Bad Options
Last year, I was asked to help address an issue of unsustainable attrition in a work unit that is part of our finance organization. To avoid any “unnecessary awkwardness” I’ll speak in generalities, but short story – the unit tacitly acknowledged creating something of The Perfect Storm of human capital management mayhem. Just a few of the factors included: bad management, excessive workload, clunky policies and procedures, medieval IT systems, inadequate facilities, uneven recogntion and rewards, lengthy training requirements and slow replacement hiring. A confluence of these factors had “spiralled” to the point where staff was exiting the unit at a rate faster than replacements could be hired, which increased the workload on those who remained. Predictably, this created a “vicious cycle” – where diminished capacity was actually endangering the operation of the rest of the organization.
In response to this existential organization threat and recognizing the long lead time to fix almost all of the environmental and other intrinsic challenges, an immediate intervention to stem any further staff departures was needed. Consequently, a tiered retention incentive – with higher percentages targeted to journeyman levels was implemented. This intervention had the desired effect of influencing the current staff to stay while the work unit began resolving the long checklist of other issues. Given that almost the entirety of this issue was self-inflicted, suffice to say no one was particularly enamored with the chosen solution.
How Do These Things Happen?
This underscores two limited instances in which seemingly no good solutions presented themselves. Individual readers can probably think of many more. But what are the drivers or circumstances that restrict us to selecting from only the best “bad options”? Not surprisingly, many of the same factors that limit our options are some of the same ones that show up during program evaluation:
- Overconfidence in design and process, combined with a failure to monitor the outcomes, results and other relevant organizational changes
- Lack of foresight, planning, prudence or simply a failure of imagination
- Insufficient (or no) time, resources, budget or needed expertise to contemplate, develop and implement alternative solutions
- Inadequate (speed, capacity, accessibility, security, data, etc.) or unavailable (cost, unproven/immature) IT systems
- Perceived or actual organization need outweighs any potentially negative or detrimental effects (sunk costs, bad publicity, etc.)
Control What You Can
As in almost all things, including the choices available to you, some factors will be within your control and others will not. Try to anticipate how things could unravel, but also be prepared to just press the button for the best bad option, and try to make it a success. And if it makes you feel any better, just pretend you’re part of the CIA.
Everyone probably has a different perspective. What’s yours?
Chris Dobyns, CCP, CBP is currently employed as a Human Capital Strategic Consultant for the Office of Human Resource Strategy and Program Design for one of the largest U.S. intelligence agencies. The Office of Human Resource Strategy and Program Design is responsible for organizational effectiveness, personnel assessment, compensation and incentives, occupational structure, recognition and rewards, HR policy, human capital program design, implementation, evaluation and assessment and internal consulting. Chris has worked in the area of compensation for more than 35 years, and has been employed in various compensation-related positions by a number of large, private sector companies including, Sears, Roebuck, Arizona Public Service and Westinghouse Savannah River Company.