We have a saying in the mountain bike world: “Clean bike outside, dirty bike inside.” Mountain biking is messy. A few hours in the woods and the bike’s covered with mud, sweat, maybe even blood. One solution is to break out the high-pressure hose and blow away all that messiness, leaving your bike shiny like new. But there’s a problem: high pressure forces dirt and grit into the seals, linkages, and bearings of the bike where it can’t be seen but slowly destroys the machine from the inside. Clean bike outside, dirty bike inside.

Business is also messy: process breakdowns, lazy employees, broken technology, government regulators, and on and on. What do you do when you see all that messiness? Do you use your personal high-pressure hose of persuasion to convince your team it’s “no big deal”? Do you passionately defend the employee that made the mistake or the system that failed? Do you use the strength of your position and power of your personality to convince people your business is clean and shiny? If you do, your team will stop surfacing issues. That messiness will stay under the surface where it can’t be seen, but where it eats away at your business from the inside.

I know you’re passionate about your business, but you need to check yourself here. You might even need to muster up the courage to ask your team if you have a habit of explaining away issues. The only bad issue is the issue you don’t know about – don’t do anything that might keep them hidden.

And when those issues surface, instead of reacting passionately, try this (as a leadership team):

  1. Get clear on WHAT is happening: have the person that raised the issue state it in a sentence or two.
  2. Identify the WHO : the one person on your leadership team that owns resolution of the issue.
  3. Ask the hard WHY’S : drill down beneath the symptom you are feeling to the real root cause or causes of the issue.
  4. Decide HOW : make one pass around the table and let the team suggest how to resolve the issue.
  5. Assign TO-DO’s : give the owner of the issue (see step #2) specific, one-week action items that will take out one or more of the root causes. If it’s a big issue with lots of potential root causes, don’t worry about solving the whole thing. Just chip away at it, and it will soon crumble under its own weight.

Good luck and embrace the messiness!