From education to employment

The Law of Diminishing Mission

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

Maybe you’ve heard the one about the three brickies on the building site? They’re all asked what they’re doing

The first says: ‘Laying bricks’

The second: ‘Building this wall’

The third: ‘Building a cathedral’.

Well last week I actually visited a cathedral – took my old mum there as a matter of fact. And having had a good look round, off we went to the café to get some lunch. Troop up to the counter, clock the menu, get mum sat down and go and order.

‘One soup and one lamb, please.’

‘Sorry, the lamb’s run out,’ he says.

‘Run after it then,’ I think, a bit cheesed off. No lamb, so Mum gets a quiche and I’m left wondering about the poor service.

This is an ordinary Wednesday, not a saint’s day, not a bank holiday, plain ordinary Wednesday, it’s 12:30 and they’re out of lamb. How has that happened?

It could be a mistake’s been made with the ordering or maybe they’re a staff member down. But I was struck by the waiter’s manner. He told me about the lamb as blankly as he would have told me the time.

It clearly didn’t matter to him at all what food was available or not, whether they were advertising dishes that didn’t exist or what impact any of this had on the public he was there to serve.

But it should have mattered. What’s my old mum going to tell her friends (apart from me thinking quiche was acceptable… ‘Quiche!!?’)? ‘Cathedral’s magnificent, the exhibition fascinating but definitely avoid their café.’

Poor reputation leading to lost revenue and less for the upkeep of a magnificent, thousand-year-old cathedral.

Somehow a very simple and robust idea – the café keeps the cathedral standing – had died before ever it reached the counter.

It’s a strong probability that the person in charge of the catering really understood it. She may even have been there at the start and had had to make the case for a café on that hallowed site.

So they’d built the café but lost the purpose and my hunch is it happened because of the Law of Diminishing Mission, which states that:

Without constant attention, as an initiative passes down a management hierarchy, routine elbows purpose out the way.

Step 1: When the boss works the idea through with the senior team, everyone’s on board with it.

Step 2: When each senior manager talks with their team the emphasis starts to fall on the practicalities of implementation and the fundamental purpose is only 1/4 as strong as it was.

Step 3: When each member of that team speaks with those they lead, the big idea gets a brief mention at best, say 1/9 of its original strength.

Judging by the waiter’s behaviour I’d guess he was four steps from the start of the process at least. He behaved as if his job had no purpose at all beyond where it fitted in his private life: children to look after…. maybe an ailing parent…. rent to find…. bills to pay.

Which is why I wasn’t in the least upset by his manner. If anything, I upset for him. No one higher up the organisation had taken five minutes every week to remind everyone of the importance of what they were engaged in or from time to time tell them what difference their hard work had made.

For want of taking a bit of interest in their staff, Management had let job satisfaction dwindle to the level of taking cash and handing out food.

Bad for staff and bad for business, when with minimal effort everyone could have felt they were building a cathedral.

Wouldn’t happen where you work, would it?

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

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