It features a signmaker who loses his glasses and accidentally installs the wrong signs all over town: “One sign said Stop. One sign said Go. One sign said Fast. One sign said Slow. Stop. Go. Fast. Slow. All mixed up.” Chaos ensues and the town simply can’t function. My daughters thought it was hilarious.
It struck me that this dynamic happens inside business all the time. Companies send mixed signals when priorities aren’t defined, when priorities flipflop, and when different leaders push conflicting priorities at the same time.
This year in particular, as everyone tries to read the tea leaves to tell the future, the signs keep changing for many businesses. The result for the rest of the organization can be inertia. If you’re told to simultaneously go fast and go slow, it’s tempting to idle the engine and wait for clarity. You can be busy without really being productive.
Change is always part of business, but the limbo of mixed signals can be particularly demotivating. In times of ambiguity and rapid change, I think it’s more important than ever to spell out priorities, and give a clear guiding light for people to follow (even if it all changes later).
In the book, the town mayor couldn’t calm the panic until Mr. Pine eventually finds his glasses and puts the signs in order. It’s a good reminder that effective leaders have to be clear signmakers.
(As an aside, thanks to our old friends the Swifts for turning us on to Mr. Pine and Leonard Kessler a few years ago).