Most leaders meet these foes when trying to digitalize their businesses:
- Siloed data and knowledge 🏯
- Sacred Processes locked up with key performers 🔒
- Trustworthy employees resist process improvements 🤯
- Low visibility and decentralization 🌊
But not so many realize, that what they see as a foe are natural artifacts of the company evolution, and there is a way to deal with them other than fighting.
How do people fall into stealth mode and become key performers?
Any company starts small. When you have under ten employees, a simple tax regime, and just a few projects, there is no need for work process profiling. In other words, it is usually a period of zero bureaucracy. Each employee is irreplaceable, and the company does not have the budget to hire and train backups - it needs immediate results. This is normal. As the company grows, the workload increases, but it still can’t afford trainees and their time to ramp up, and each team member has to increase their efficiency accordingly.
What employees do is - sacrifice their documentation, minimize communications, polish their work habits, and come up with shortcuts and tricks, that send them to an unreal level of efficiency. At the same time, this is the birth of stealth processes, siloed knowledge, and dependencies on key people. You can compare them to ninjas because what they do is incredible, and nobody has a clue how they do it.
Process improvement meets silos and ninja employees
At some point, the workload begins to overcome the amount that even ninja employees can digest. Superperformers begin to lose the chase. This is usually a point where company strategy changes according to the scale, and the leadership wants to make decisions based on metrics. To do it, they try to understand what’s going on in those silos, identify the processes and squeeze data out. They face the resistance of ninja employees, who claim that if they start explaining and documenting things, their performance will shrink to an ordinary level and below, and the work momentum will be lost. Because of the same reasons they can’t train trainees. This seems to be a deadlock. A shallow opinion may arise that the company has to get rid of stealth performers because they are a risk to process improvement and upcoming unavoidable digitalization.
Denial instead of recognition
The origin of resistance is natural. Even though employees put all their creativity and force to work, the leadership comes to them and says: “The performance is insufficient”, “The process is not transparent”, “The result is unpredictable”, and “The workflow is not streamlined”. This is fair from their standpoint, but for the ninja employee, it’s treason and denial. Why? Because their performance is 3x that of an ordinary employee, their process is a polished masterpiece, they always keep their word and they have given away all they had. This is the Rubicon of trust and healthy relationships.
The sad results of a fight with a ninja
The interesting and sad result of the above situation is that even well-balanced process improvement and digitalization do not pay off as expected because the experts that could mutually boost the company transformation have either left the company or regressed to a “normal” working regime. In the best case, they will spend some time on knowledge transfer and process reflection, but deep inside they are ready for the new challenge, in another company. Most of their art, creative approaches, and process magic are lost for the company. The newcomers, no matter how great they are, can hardly replace top performers in one day.
Make Opposition Your Ally
So is there a way to transform the company but remain with your top performers, and trust each other? Sure there’s no magic recipe for that, and no guarantees, as some people just love startups and eventually leave companies as they grow, but there are recommendations that help. minimize risks
Recognize their input. Instead of “we need to improve results” you need to stand on the “your results are incredible, and we would clone you if we could” position. Don’t let them get you wrong, you’re doing this not because their results are poor, but because one can’t scale to the amount of work, and it’s their merit that this comment has come 🏆
Don’t pick on their process. When saying “we need to improve the process” you automatically claim that the process is not good enough. But remember that the employee spent days and nights polishing it. Explain that the company needs a process that would allow it to “clone” this person. Explain that you want their art, creative ideas, optimization tricks, etc. to be available to other people 🧑🎨
Explain the benefits of new tools. If this is a “can do everything” type of employee, they will be able to do beyond that. You want to unleash their true potential, but make them boring “salary men”. Their creativity and skill will only be gained from the new equipment 🚀
Explain why stealth processes give you hard times. If you let them know what decision you are trying to make and what metric you need for that - a real expert will understand. Don’t be general with phrases like “everything needs to be automated”, or “the more granularity the better” 🔎
Let them choose their apprentice. When hiring someone to share their responsibilities, make sure the two are compatible. Show your trust and respect and let the experienced ninja pick and train the new one 🎎️️️️️️
Sounds like a challenge? Yep, pretty much. But imagine how top tooling can boost a top performer. Do you want to miss this opportunity? There is a myth that a steady process doesn’t need key people. Come on, do you believe in it? Or that’s just because it’s a challenge to deal with people with strong opinions?