Revisiting Spilled Milk Management

    October 23, 2006

Spilled milk management is the mindset among many managers and business owners of failing to move beyond a business problem.

Whether a minor setback, or a major company threatening disaster, the response remains the same. Instead of seeking solutions, the spilled milk mindset manager can only focus on what went wrong. As the old saying goes, “Don’t cry over spilled milk”.

Unfortunately, the logical step of solving the problem is all too often beyond the grasp of the manager who possesses the spilled milk focus. Obsessing over the problem and wishful thinking that it should never have happened is this manager’s stock in trade. Missing from their worldview is the fact that disasters happen, and once they occur, the best course of action is to do something about remedying the situation. Instead, the narrowly focussed manager will spend his or her time hand wringing, and watching the milk create an even larger mess to clean up.

Rob May at Business Pundit presents a typical exchange between a spilled milk focussed manager and another employee who is attempting to find a solution.

Rob writes:

There are two ways to respond. The first is what many people do – cry over the spilled milk. The second, is to accept it and move on. Managers that embrace the first option don’t deal well with employees that embrace the second. You end up with situations like this…

Manager: Well what do we do now?

Employee: We can do one of three things (explains all 3 options).

Manager: I just wished this hadn’t happened.

Employee: Yes I understand, but that is irrelevant.

Manager: Yeah, I know… but I just… why did this happen?

Employee: I don’t know. We didn’t see it coming, but we have to react. We have to do something.

Manager: I’ll have to think about it. I just can’t believe this happened.

The whole time, the manager’s mind is obsessing about the problem, and can’t stop to focus on the solution. The manager becomes so aggravated that, as a result, the problem isn’t solved in a timely fashion. Every discussion about the problem revolves around the manager explaining to people how she can’t believe this actually happened.

Rob offers sound advice for employees of spilled milk managers:

If you work for a spilled milk manager, my suggestion is that you convince them to move on by pointing out that you can analyze the problem at a later date, devote more resources to it, and understand why it happened and how you missed it.

The manager who can’t look past the issue is doing the organization a disservice. By failing to understand that what’s done is done, and can’t be changed by wishing it away, the manager is failing at the task of problem solving.

Rob suggests telling the manager that the problem can be analyzed at a future date. The danger of this approach is the manager will retreat even farther into the lament for unnattainable perfection. The net result for the organization could be operations brought to a complete standstill.

Spilled milk managers seek control, and are often micromanagers to the extreme. They are also seldom risk takers or innovators. To them, the concept of fresh ideas is an invitation to disaster. Creative thinkers are not held in high regard by this sort of management personality. Indeed, the imaginative employee will be urged to leave the organization entirely. Fear of loss can be a powerful disincentive to change, even though the business climate is in a constant state of flux.

The hand wringing manager is often paralyzed into complete inaction by a wrong turn in a carefully laid out plan. As a result, they are often unable to make decisions leading to potential profits as they are nagged by that fear of loss. All too often, that concern that all will be lost is a self fulfilling prophecy. The concern that an idea will fail will almost guarantee disaster. Resources given to the project will be insufficient in terms of money, time, and personnel. The starved program will then begin life with two strikes already against its success.

Many times the final approval will be given much too late to capitalize on any early entry advantage. At the same time, staff will not be given the opportunity to provide innovation or initiative. Instead, a keep your head down company culture will evolve. In such organizations, mistakes mean termination, so no one dares take responsibility for anything. When the milk inevitably is spilled over the floor, all that is left is the assignment of blame.

Don’t let your organization become a spilled milk oriented management model of inaction.

Let innovation and creative problem solving be your company watchwords. That milk won’t stay on the floor for long, if it ever arrives there at all.

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