It all began with free pizza.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79505
Many jobs ago, when I was working for a company that coincidentally no longer exists, there was a monthly event that no one looked forward to; the monthly managers’ meeting.
My fellow managers were, as individuals, extremely pleasant and competent people, but when they got together, group paralysis seemed to set in as they became collectively incapable, or even afraid, of taking independent action.
I remember one meeting especially well as it taught me a valuable management and leadership lesson. It all involved free pizza. In an effort to improve both morale and attendance, it was decided that the monthly meetings would be scheduled during everyone’s lunch hour, and that a free pizza lunch would be provided.
The meeting started promptly at noon, and soon settled into a familiar pattern of discussing, delaying, denying, and deferring actions to be taken.
And then, the telephone in the conference room rang.
The conversation stopped. Everyone stared at the telephone as it continued to ring. What could this mean? Why would someone place a telephone call into a conference room? Were we being watched? The phone continued to ring. Everyone stared at the phone, trying to will the ringing to stop.
After a few rings, I answered the phone. “It’s the front desk. The pizza is here.” Instantly, the tension was broken. Everyone started to breathe again.
But, after a few seconds, everyone froze again. Glances of uncertainty were exchanged. Everyone in the room shared the same thought, “What should we do now?” After a few more seconds of deafening silence, I stood up and addressed the team, as they sat frozen in their chairs and said, “I’ll go downstairs and get the pizza.”
OK, I may be exaggerating for dramatic effect, but I really did see this happen. It’s easy to dismiss this silly little story as a silly little story, but I think that there’s more to it. Individuals, small groups, and large institutions often create their own inertia. It’s the responsibility of team leaders and managers to recognize when forward progress is stalled and change the team’s inertia by removing obstacles. This may require shifting resources from one task to another, or it may require adjusting the relative priorities of task assignments, or it may require simply answering the phone and picking up free pizzas.