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Warning Signs

Optimize Blog - June 22, 2011 - 0 comments

The ‘Holy Island’ of Lindisfarne, is located just off the coast of Northumberland in England. The hugely popular tourist destination attracts thousands of visitors each year drawn by the beauty, serenity and religious significance of the island. Many others come simply to traverse the ’causeway’ – a tidal link between the island and the mainland which is notable for being fully under water twice every 24 hours.
So – what’s the big deal about the causeway being under water twice every day? Well, it appears that the extensive warning signs at each end of the causeway are consistently unheeded by a number of tourists and, as we know, saltwater, rising tides and motor vehicles are not a good mix.

Lindisfarne's tidal causeway

The lifeboat volunteers in the area are quite shocked by the apparent inability to take due notice of both the very clear warning signs and the rather obvious thought that an ‘island’ might indeed be accessible only by boat for most of the time. They find it bizarre that tourists continue to try to drive on a submerged tidal causeway outside safe crossing times.
The latest rescue is that of an Australian couple who became stranded on the Holy Island causeway in what was the eighth rescue carried out this year. The couple had to abandon their hire car to the incoming tide and make their way to the causeway’s refuge shelter.
Ian Clayton, from the Royal National Lifeboat Institute station said: “It’s incredible that people seem to think they can drive their cars into the North Sea.” Mr Clayton went on to say “It’s all so preventable and they all seem to think it’s not their fault, but they’ve totally ignored warning signs on both sides of the road”.
'You might want to come back later'

'You might want to come back later'

In business we come across warning signs frequently. Some we take due note of and alter our direction or behaviour accordingly and some, like the Australian couple above, we choose to ignore – quite often with unfortunate consequences.
Spotting the warning signs of issues is a key leadership skill and, although they might not always be as obvious as the ones on the Lindisfarne causeway, it is essential that as leaders we fine tune our ability to pick on those leading indicators that foretell of trouble ahead. The ability to tune in to these warning signs often simply comes from experience but it can also be supplemented by taking a proactive approach to the management of risk.
In many cases the ‘symptoms of problems’ or warning signs are intangible and thus it requires further work to get to the root causes of those issues. For example, an increase in the level of complaints from the team could be an a indicator of disengagement, a problem with management style, dissatisfaction with a new process, workload issues caused by other departments and so on. On the other hand a drop in the level of communication from a key stakeholder might be an indication that you have failed to meet expectations or, if your team is being kept out of the loop on an important project, an indication that your team’s value is misunderstood.
Clearly there is more required than just being aware of the multitude of warning signs or symptoms of issues that are out there – you also need to uncover the root causes of those symptoms and take appropriate action. However, being aware is the first (and perhaps most critical) step.
If you do find that you have missed the warning signs, reflect on why you missed it and ensure that you don’t repeat the mistake going forward. Experience and practice are key and while most of us can spot the obvious warning signs in business, it is the ability to recognize the subtle warning signs that sets the great leader apart from the good.
As for people drowning their vehicles on the Holy Island causeway, you have to wonder what they put on their insurance claim forms. The cause of the damage being described as ‘stupidity’ doesn’t look great in black and white…

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