Why HEROes Should Not Be Firefighters

Back in 2011, Fast Track reported on Ted Schadler and Josh Bernoff, authors of Empowered: Unleash your employees, energize your customers, and transform your business) and the coining of a new term: HEROes (Highly Empowered and Resourceful Operatives).

“HEROes are those employees who feel empowered to solve customer problems and act resourcefully by using whatever technology they need to use… individuals harnessing readily available social, mobile, video, and cloud technology to solve customer and business problems,” is how he defines HEROes in the Harvard Business Review blog post, IT in the Age of the Empowered Employee.

HEROes comprise 20 percent of the U.S. information workforce and are growing. These employees use free or relatively low-cost third-party technologies – such as QuickBase, Google Docs, and LinkedIn, and others that have not been officially endorsed by their company IT department – to make the customer experience better. Frequently, because these HEROes can solve problems quickly, they serve as the organization’s firefighters.

The Downside of Hero Worship

Over at the Successful Workplace blog, however, Ron Webb notes some problems having a culture of heroes (although his definition is more skewed to that of “change agent.”) First, heroes get pulled off projects to go save the day and the projects they leave need saving later, and secondly, what happens when your heroes or HEROes get bored in a working environment characterized by planned, efficient, and repeatable work?

I believe the issue here is how some organizations have been using their HEROes.  In my view, a HERO is not necessarily someone who is constantly putting out internal or external fires. To expect them to act as such, as to hold them up as a model for how to do business, could actually be dangerous.  Because there will inevitably come a time when a fire can not be put out despite the HERO’s best efforts.  It will spread and may have the power to take your organization down.

HEROes Can Still Thrive in a Stable Environment

Having a few HEROes on staff does not give you a license to be lazy or haphazard about your operations.  There should still be a method to your madness, especially when you are in growth mode and things become a bit harder to manage.  If you want to be in it to win it, you must work to fix your broken processes systematically rather than waiting until someone is complaining or an alarm is going off.

Instead of regaling your HEROes as supermen and superwomen, why not focus their talents on the more subtle, irritating problems in your business that wreack havoc over time (i.e. an inefficient asset management system or a process for rolling out new technologies).  Allow them to be tinkerers – or those who play around with various ideas until they hit upon the perfect solution.  Encourage them to be proactive rather than reactive, and to practice intrapreneurship – or the process of developing new products, services, or processes within the context of the larger organization – so they still feel motivated even when days are slower and calmer than they are used to.

What is the main role of the HEROes in your organization?  Do you think it needs to change?

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