As part of a recent migration, a colleague of mine cycled a few interesting posts from the past back up to the front page of her blog. While I found both her entry on transforming a hero culture and its follow-up post on team culture to be thought-provoking, something about the way they framed the problem didn't sit quite right with me.
The problem with a hero culture is not the fact that there are people willing to work long hours or make personal sacrifices for the good of the organization. The issue comes when an organization's ability to address problems has deteriorated to the point where it can't consistently solve them before they blow up into crises.
Time spent fighting fires takes away from the time available to prevent problems or to address them early on—before they grow into horrible conflagrations. A vicious cycle ensues and, before long, only the worst problems can be dealt with. Firefighting becomes the standard modus operandi. People constantly need to make heroic sacrifices just to keep things from coming completely undone.
Perhaps, then, the term hero culture should be reframed as crisis culture. Instead of stopping people from being heroes, we need to obviate the need for heroes. The way to do this is to fix the culture that gives rise to a steady stream of impending disasters. In this situation, what you need is prevention, not cure—an army of goats instead of a regiment of firefighters.
Encouraging prevention is tough. Problems averted have little visibility, while everyone notices the person who's putting in eighteen-hour days—even if the problem he’s fixing was originally of his own making.
While we may be grateful to the individual who puts in a heroic effort to deliver a product on time, the fact that heroic effort was required at all should be a cause for introspection within the organization.
And, if extraordinary sacrifice is demanded of employees day in and day out, then we know with certainty that something has gone wrong—very, very wrong.
Rick Scott is a Canadian philosopher-geek who's profoundly interested in how we can collaborate to make technology work better for everyone. Rick's an incorrigible idealist, an open source contributor, and a staunch believer in testing, universal access, and the hacker ethic. When he's not in front of a computer, you'll find Rick hiking, making cupcakes, or honing his viola technique.