Home > Uncategorized > Who’s minding the cobwebs?

Who’s minding the cobwebs?


I recently visited an amusement park with my family. In an otherwise clean and orderly park, I noticed a number of cobwebs clinging to signs or railings. It got me to thinking… who’s minding the cobwebs? It’s probably not on the list of responsibilities for the cleaning crew as it’s not sweeping, mopping, cleaning bathrooms, wiping down tables, etc. Cobwebs probably don’t rank high on the priorities for the maintenance department when they have painting, repairs, green spaces, and other tasks to address on a daily and weekly basis.

Image by: Martin Geupel

When I was in graduate school in Educational Administration (I was on the track to become a principal or headmaster of a school), I remember hearing about a study where they watched to see who would pick up a piece of trash in a school hallway. They found that generally only two people would. Want to guess who? I’ll tell you: the school janitor and the principal. In other words, it was the person who had specific responsibility for that type of behavior and the person who had responsibility for the entire operation. Everyone one else- teachers, administrative staff, and cafeteria workers walked right on by.

There are two points here: When everyone is responsible for a task, really no one is… kind of like the community fridge in the office. No doubt it looks worse than your fridge at home does. Everyone has communal responsibility for it, but no one takes ownership of it. Secondly, if it’s not spelled out as a priority, no one takes it seriously as a responsibility. I’d like to see the organization where everyone is tasked with removing cobwebs and picking up trash they see on the floor. My guess is that as they train their eyes to see what others walk past, they’ll start to notice other areas- like business processes or customer service or communications- that need improvement too.

Since my visit to the amusement park I’ve started noticing cobwebs other places. Maybe I’ve even started looking for them. I’ve knocked them down in my garage and from railings and under my deck and from places where people might not even notice. But I’ve gotten to the place where I don’t want to see cobwebs, and I want them out of my life. Even in obscure places.

You see cobwebs represent what’s been overlooked, a lack of attention to detail. Cobwebs symbolize those areas, usually corners of our lives that we’ve gotten comfortable with, that we don’t give a critical eye to. If you look up cobwebs in the dictionary, you’ll also find that there are any number of negative associations: flimsy, insubstantial, a network of plot or intrigue, confusion, indistinctness, lack of order. I don’t know about you, but none of these do I want in my life.

It could be that cobwebs in your organization are the program whose time is past or the way of thinking that is not in tune with a connected and engaged community. It could be that employee who no longer produces but is still there occupying an office or a cubicle. The cobwebs could be the inability to take a risk on an unproven idea. The cobwebs could be a stifling bureaucracy or ineffective communications. It could be an organizational culture that causes its employees to merely clock in and clock out rather than giving their best efforts and ideas.

So, I ask again… who’s minding the cobwebs? In your life? In your organization?

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  1. August 3, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Hey – I really like this post. 😀 I think all of us have those untended areas that get built up around us that we don’t pay attention to. And you’re right, we have to delegate some sort of responsibility to people to mind the store or we’ll all pretend someone else was supposed to do something about it.

    • Jay S. Daughtry
      August 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Shelly. Yes, there are areas that we are blind to or simply ignore. Sometimes we need another set of eyes, or we need to train ourselves to really look!

  2. August 3, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Jay, you make some excellent points here. My biggest takeaway is a question. How do we keep people invested in a project, company, organization, such that they are motivated to take initiative? How do we get people to feel that sense of pride and ownership that will inspire them to pay attention to those little details that can make all the difference between just OK work and something truly remarkable? It’s an ongoing challenge, isn’t it?

    I believe one factor is allowing people to contribute something of their creative spirit, so that they feel that they personally make a difference. If you can see something of yourself in the space around you and in the product that is being created, then you’re going have a bigger vested interest in its quality and success, including wiping away the cobwebs.

    I’ve worked in environments where this spirit has been nurtured and I’ve had the experience where it was utterly stomped on. The results always speak for themselves…
    D

    • Jay S. Daughtry
      August 6, 2012 at 4:09 pm

      Deborah, you’ve brought up some excellent questions. Quite simply, I think these kinds of behaviors need to be recognized, appreciated, and reinforced. If you want employees to show initiative or notice the little things, it requires management taking the time to encourage and foster these actions and results. In the short-term an organization may not see a big difference, but I’m convinced that over the long haul the benefits will be evident.

  3. Deb Rexon
    August 4, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Jay, great post! One of our commanders at JBMDL touched on a similar topic at a Commander’s Call last year when he noted that on one of his walk-arounds, he noted a hole in a wall. When he asked about it, his escort indicated that he hadn’t noticed it. Behavior like this also occurs in a volunteer organization to which I belong. More often than not, individual mind-set is one of “I didn’t create the problem/mess, so it’s not my job to fix it.” It is at times like these when we quietly lead by example, because sometimes our actions speak much louder than our words.

    • Jay S. Daughtry
      August 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm

      You’ve hit on some great points, Deb. Leading by example is key. We can all slip into the mentality of “it’s not my problem”. How do we take enough ownership to make sure things get done, even if it’s not us actually doing the task? Discussion. Delegation. Requests. Escalation, if necessary.

  4. August 5, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    Great post. The best organizations with I have worked or been a customer have employees who care enough to take responsibility for the whole experience, cobwebs and all. The most frustratiing experiences have been occassions when employees are aware of breakdowns, errors or deficiencies but choose to ignore them. We can’t expect perfection at all times … But we can expect more than settling (and making excuses) for mediocrity.

  5. August 6, 2012 at 4:17 am

    Jay – Love the post. I sometimes think the hardest part is seeing the cobwebs at all. When we expect to see the same things, day after day, it takes something unique to pull us out of the moment and have us notice what may have been right in front of our face – but was difficult to see all along. If we can first see the cobwebs in our associations, in our lives, we would be half way to making sure that we were able to clean them up.

  6. August 6, 2012 at 9:41 am

    This is a great post, Jay, and so true. I especially relate to your quote, “when everyone is responsible for a task, really no one is.” So often leaders overlook an immutable fact of human behavior – we all react and internalize things differently. In business this equates to – what I consider to be important, might be “back burner” status to you, and vice versa. The current trend in business management centers on organizational transparency and ownership. Although I am a huge proponent of this management style, I think traditional methods still hold value. Even though it’s tedious, I believe in creating formal, evolving responsibility lists for every employee. It helps us all remain focused on the global objectives, not just our own. And who knows…it might just help clear up some of those cobwebs.

  7. August 6, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Great post, Jay. Count me firmly on the side of adding these sorts of duties to official job descriptions. They have to be someone’s formal responsibility and need to be built into work processes. Fostering a positive culture will only get you to the point that workers care enough to notice the cobwebs. Getting them to clean them up is an entirely different problem. This is particularly true in associations, where every staffer already has more work to do than time to do it. If you want something done that no one is already doing, it’s time to hire someone to do it or assign the responsibility to someone already on hand (and then recognize them for taking on a new duty).

  8. August 10, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Jay, this is a fantastic post! We work with clients all the time who may be in a situation where only one person in their operation is seeing their cobwebs in the first place. At times we find them in our office as well. What makes a difference is recognizing that they are there, and that it really should be a group effort to get rid of them. And those who participate in getting rid of them (with creative ideas or actually implementing the change) need to be recognized for their ideas – which in turn will keep them at bay in the future.

  9. August 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    I like to think I am one of those people who would stop to pick up a piece of trash or remove a cobweb, but I KNOW there are areas in my life that need attention and I continue to overlook them. I can also attest to the need for personal responsibility on projects. We found this to be an issue in my company and have since been tasking team members with “rocks” which are specific, measurable and realistic projects that they are ultimately responsible for. As a team we identify the issues and create “rocks” around solving them. The key though is making sure only one person is assigned the rock. Awesome post Jay, really eye-opening!

  1. December 31, 2012 at 10:35 am

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