When Alan Mulally became CEO of Ford Motor Company, it was losing market share and profits at a rapid pace and the financial statements had turned a deep red. Yet when he organized his first set of reviews, all his teams presented him charts showing how things were going well and targets were being achieved. He asked the teams to look at the objective truth and present things as they were, not as how we wanted them to be. It was the start of the turnaround of Ford.

This was a classic case of serving watermelons to the boss. Green on the outside but a deep red inside. Showcasing that the targets are being met and things are on track but avoiding the dark and ugly truths. This kind of behaviour is quite common in many organisations. It leads very often to the leadership having the wrong information and hence making the wrong decisions. The Vietnam war started with the leadership in the US being presented an inaccurate version of the truth and many corporate failures happened because the true negatives were not revealed at the right moment to make right decisions.

Make a decision as a leader that you do not like intact watermelons. If anything the fruits must be cut up and presented as they are. Truth and bad news are as welcome as good news as it allows you to see the true picture and make fair decisions. Also make it known to your teams that when they present bad news and also propose potential options to mitigate the issues, they will be appreciated and recognized for being truthful. 

How can you encourage the teams to stop presenting intact watermelons and instead fearlessly share the true picture of what is going well and what is not going well ? Here are some methods

1. Failcon – Organize atleast once a year a failcon, short for “failure conference”. Everyone will share their failure stories and take learnings from them. This will encourage worst practice sharing so that others do not repeat the same mistakes, create an environment of psychological safety and create a continuous learning loop.

2. Kaizen – The famous Japanese method of continuous improvement encourages everyone to share their ideas on how to make things better in every aspect of the business and rewards and recognizes the best improvements. This also changes the instinct in us to complain into an effort to contribute. Set up an inbox or wall or virtual tool to collect ideas on how to improve and also point out what is not happening.

3. Powerful questions – Start meetings by asking powerful questions like “what is NOT working / what is NOT successful” to encourage everyone to share their feedback and allow for issues to surface and enable a constructive discussion.

4. Feedback Tools – Use tools like surveys and menti to collect feedback from the organisation continuously to allow for improvement and growth. Focus especially on leadership, culture and behavioural aspects to get quality feedback.

Watermelons are deeply dangerous for organisations. If everyone serves their leaders watermelons it often leads to strategic mistakes and eventual failure.

As leaders we must make a solemn vow to see the red and the failures and the issues for what they are. Only then can we get to the root causes and solve the issues.

Create the space for your teams to speak to the truth. Say no to watermelons.

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