Saturday, June 14, 2014

Invisible Man on Third…

I was wandering around my yard after dinner the other night, half-heartedly taking inventory of the garden chores I had been dodging, when I noticed some kids playing kickball across the street. There were six of them, three per team, and they were pretty good kickers, so they were doing a lot of base running. I chuckled when the tall kid standing on third base yelled "Invisible man on third!," at which point the base runners on first and second and the kids on the other team watched intently while he jogged to home plate to kick. Bases loaded, invisible man on third! I hadn't heard that proclamation for a long time, but if you have ever played kickball, stickball, baseball or softball with teams of three or less, you know all about the invisible man.

For some reason, that kickball game got me thinking about invisibility as a attribute in planning and operations and personal behavior. In certain circumstances, as in the small team base-running scenario, it is an operating imperative as the game can't proceed unless the invisible runner rule is invoked. Invisibility is the goal of many corporate security protocols, to protect sensitive information, to preserve privacy and confidentiality, and to shield intellectual property from attack or discovery. It is the intended product of stealth functionality, to camouflage activities while providing cover or anonymity. It can be an element of a individual's operating model, or a preference, as when someone acts behind the scenes or tries to avoid visibility or to otherwise conceal their activities. And sometimes it emerges as an incidental factor in a program or project, usually through negligence or inadvertence, when folks aren't paying attention and ownership, accountability and decision rights don't get clearly established.

My first encounter with a corporate version of the invisible man came decades ago while I was working as a claims supervisor for a large insurer in Massachusetts. I remember the claims supervisor job as a tough one, largely because the supervisor was responsible for monitoring and directing a hefty and constantly shifting portfolio of claims toward timely and appropriate resolution. Theoretically, the supervisor would assign the claims to claims handlers who moved them through the phases--investigation, evaluation and resolution--but sometimes there just weren't enough claim handlers available to handle all the claims. Turnover, training, vacations, hiring freezes, an increasing volume of new claims--any one of these things could create a situation where there were too many claims and not enough claim handlers. The solution? At that particular company the solution was Mr. X, who had a diary number and carried a large caseload of slow moving claims reassigned from other claim handlers. Every claims supervisor had a Mr.X on staff. He was imaginary and invisible, so he wasn't able to accomplish anything on the claims, but the reassignments to Mr.X created workload capacity so the real claim handlers could handle more new claims. Mr.X was an operating imperative.
Years later, I bumped into Mr.X's cousins at a third party claims administrator in New Jersey. The TPA had guaranteed their clients that claim workloads would not exceed a certain number per claim handler. As the end of the month approached, if workloads were higher than promised the TPA claims supervisors would reassign claims to themselves or to their office manager to reduce the claim handler workloads to the agreed number. This was done for stealth reasons, to conceal actual workload levels. Of course the supervisors and manager weren't imaginary or invisible, but they may as well have been since they did not actually work on the claims assigned to them. They were simply placeholders until after month end, at which point the claims would be reassigned to the claims handlers.

Radio and TV journalist Richard Harkness is credited with drafting this definition of a committee: "A group of the unwilling, picked from the unfit, to do the unnecessary." While I think that characterization is a bit severe, I have probably been on too many committees, so I believe it is fair to say that most committees have at least one member who fails to attend meetings and contributes little or nothing to the committee's work. That's awkward enough, but when the invisible committee member also happens to be the committee chair, it is even more awkward. I remember working on a committee in New York where the chair would schedule a meeting, then miss the meeting at the last minute because of a vague, recurring malady he described only as "man flu." The committee would meet without him, cover the agenda, provide him with the minutes, then he would schedule another meeting, and at the last minute...well, you have probably lived this dream yourself. He was an absentee committee chair, he took credit for the committee's work, yet he never contributed anything to that work.

I have seen the same type of incidental invisibility in large scale technology development and/or implementation projects, where it is frequently difficult to determine who, if anyone, actually "owns" the project. I always ask two questions: 1) Has any one person actually been tasked with setting direction, managing obstacles and making decisions on the project? 2) Is there a real person who knows and understands he/she will be held responsible and accountable if things don't work out as expected on the project? It is usually easy to identify the project sponsor, and the steering committee, and the subject matter experts, and the IT folks who are managing the project, but the project owner is often not visible. Why? Either project ownership responsibility was never specifically assigned or, more likely, ownership was assigned to a committee. Psychologist Will Schutz was no doubt thinking of something else when he wrote this, but he did a good job of describing the inevitable, unfortunate outcome when an owner-less or committee-owned project fails to meet expectations: "Everyone is responsible but no one is to blame."

It is even worse when the wrong person or department is identified as the owner. I think it is crazy for Human Resources executives to own an employee engagement project, for example, or for IT executives to own a technology development or implementation project. These are business projects, and they should be owned by the business leader who convinced the organization that he/she had a problem or an opportunity, and that the project was the solution. Sure, HR and IT are there to assist, to provide expertise, structure, oversight, and maybe even project management, but the business person owner needs to remain visible, responsible and accountable.

Jonathan Lethem made a point about invisibility in his book Chronic City: "The invisible are always so resolutely invisible, until you see them." That's true in business and in life, I suppose, but no matter how hard you try, you'll never be able to see the invisible man on third.  That's just the way it is.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on Property Casualty insurance claims and operations. He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter.

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