You're Out of Line!

David Baker

My son and I recently stopped at one of our regular restaurants to watch a hockey game, and arrived to find a lineup of 10 or so people waiting to get in. We’d been standing in line for a few moments when I noticed two empty stools, one at each end of the bar. After confirming with the hostess they were available, I walked in and asked the people seated at the bar if they might move so I could create two spots together – which they were happy to do. Our seats now secure, I went back to call my son, when the fellow at the head of the line loudly voiced his offense at the idea we had jumped the queue. “Hey buddy, can't you see us standing here?!” he said, motioning as though I thought he and the other guests were invisible. Clearly he felt that I had broken the rules, presumably because we now had two seats as opposed to the singles previously available at the bar.

I find his perspective interesting and offer this question: Was I “out of line” (both literally and figuratively in this case) to go past the others? Or was I within my rights to claim the spots no one else had seen fit to use? Is there a social convention that dictates I should have waited for seats to be provided? Or was acting from the back of the line acceptable? Perhaps it would have been more prudent for us to have taken the two separate seats and, after an “appropriate” amount of time, attempted to move them together.

While the answer may not be certain, I believe one thing is clear:

The acceptance of the status quo by those in line should not commit me to the same.

I suggest those standing in queue might have unique points of view on the situation:

  • Some didn’t want to sit at the bar and were content to wait; they consciously delegated authority to the hostess.
  • Some would choose to avoid possible confrontation (or even interaction) with those at the bar. It surprises me how terrifying some people find engaging in conversation with a stranger.
  • And some didn’t feel comfortable disturbing the established order — that is, others are waiting and so they probably ought to wait as well.

These perspectives are also a good representation of how many organizations and leaders think today. Some are content with the way things are, some avoid confrontation at all costs and others are uncomfortable breaking out of the established order.

Companies (and individuals) who rely on their place in line (or position or tenure or market share, etc.) to qualify them for success will find themselves left out. It’s quite unlikely that what got you here today will get you there tomorrow. Patiently waiting your turn and relying on expected outcomes can be a threat to your organization’s very existence. Look no further than Blockbuster, Blackberry or Kodak for proof, as they and many others learned that contentedness, respect of the established order and a fear of confrontation are a hop, skip and a jump from obsolescence.

When a company's perspective (culture) becomes complacent or afraid of conflict, it creates an expectation and a belief that all members of ought to adhere to certain norms — similar to how the fellow in line felt when I “skipped ahead” and broke with his cultural assumption that we should all stay in line. Or put another way: “This is the way we do things,” “We have a process,” “You’re stepping on toes,” etc.

Which brings me to pose a question I believe leaders must ask themselves: “Does our company culture encourage employees to reorganize the barstools?”

If the answer is “no,” the value you create will be fixed within the current process (the line at the restaurant) and resources (the number of tables) presently available. Alternatively, companies and cultures that reorganize the barstools create value that did not previously exist. In the competitive marketplace, this is akin to the difference between combining existing content with the digital revolution and charging a fixed fee (Netflix), and clinging to an outdated revenue and delivery model while offering no late fees (Blockbuster).

If you’re going out for supper tonight, take it easy and enjoy yourself; feel free to wait for someone to seat you. But if you’re leading an organization into an ever-more competitive (and globalized) marketplace, ask the difficult question: are we prepared to reorganize the barstools?

Shift in Thinking is a monthly article from chief storyteller David Baker with a call to action for organizations and individuals. Using engaging narratives and probing questions, he seeks to provoke a new way of thinking around brand, culture and leadership, and to help readers intentionally realize their potential – Potentionality!

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