Successful software businesses are built on innovation and service. Those two characteristics are core principles in every startup and are hallmarks of huge brands that have stood the test of time. However, mistakes are made, trends are realized, and policies, systems, and procedures are laid out as preventative measures. The thought is that this will streamline processes and prevent loss of image and/or revenue. The systems that work are great but policies can stifle innovation and become deadly. A company’s greatest assets are its people and if a company treats their people like a zombie assembly line the company will soon become a zombie in the marketplace.
While serving in the Coast Guard my Commanding Officer (CO) once told me the following: “Policy is written to keep you and your crew safe but sometimes policy is wrong. Policies aren’t written for every possible situation so it’s important that you know when you’re going to deviate from policy and why.” This advice was huge for me and my career as a Small Boat Coxswain. I learned that sometimes doing the right thing means breaking the rules.
I was a brand new Coxswain (small boat captain) in the U.S. Coast Guard and took my crew out on a routine cruise around Cleveland Harbor in our 25ft Response Boat. We took off from the dock on East 9th Street which is across from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and headed northeast towards the 72nd Street Marina just outside the inner harbor. At the end of the break wall, we noted that the wind was causing a huge amount of chop and stacking up some respectable waves on Lake Erie. Our boat was rated for 6-foot seas and 25-knot winds and although we weren’t exceeding its limitations the vessel’s maneuverability was heavily affected.
Within a few minutes of assessing the seas outside of the break-wall, my starboard lookout spotted a large cabin cruiser floating dangerously close to the rocks lining the shore. It didn’t take long before we saw someone on deck waving us down. I quickly brought our boat up to speed and barreled down on the floundering vessel. Once we were within 30 yards I noticed our depth was getting dangerously close to bottoming out. For non-boaters out there that means I was about to run aground which is strictly against policy in the Coast Guard because it can severely damage your vessel.
To put this into perspective for you, that’s like a driver steering a car over a cliff and then the responding ambulance showing up and driving over the same cliff… It’s hard to save lives when you’re dead.
…that’s like a driver steering a car over a cliff and then the responding ambulance showing up and driving over the same cliff… It’s hard to save lives when you’re dead.
The vessel in trouble was being picked up by the 4-foot wind-chop waves and being dropped onto massive, sharp boulders. We could tell they had already sustained substantial hull damage and the boat was going to sink. On top of this, the two elderly men on board didn’t appear capable of attempting a swim for their life. I had a decision to make. To follow policy meant to wait, call my CO and get permission for me to operate under dangerous water depths. That process could take 5 minutes or more and this was time we didn’t have. Doing so would likely have resulted in watching these men die as their boat, and eventually their bodies were beaten lifeless against the rocks. Thinking quickly, I made my decision that this time policy was wrong.
With my depth alarm screaming at me in the cockpit, I trimmed up my engines and set up for an approach as I took two large waves directly off my stern. Then it happened – the last wave picked me up by my stern and dropped me right onto the rocky bottom with a loud thud. Now it wasn’t just the two elderly men who were in trouble, it was my entire crew. We went from two possible casualties to six, but sometimes that’s the nature of a rescue.
Making decisions like these aren’t easy. You only get seconds . . . not days, not weeks, just seconds. All you can do is read and assess the situation then try to reduce whatever risks you can on the fly. If you choose to go, you fight and you fight to win. Losing isn’t an option; losing means death.
In business and life, it’s the same way – you can follow the guidelines that help you play it safe while you watch something slowly die or you can risk, make a mess, and be better for trying.
When it comes to protecting your business it’s imperative that you do risk but chronic red tape syndrome is a soul killer. So how can business leaders effectively protect their company’s image and revenue without killing innovation? You take the stance my CO did and teach your team to risk for the right reasons. Then win or lose, you back your team. Yes, your job might be on the line, but a real leader lives and dies with his team.
As quickly as we hit the rocks we got picked back up by the surf. My crew examined our hull and found no signs of serious damage. We went on to perform a completely unorthodox rescue which included towing the damaged vessel away from the rocks by her stern. I radioed in the event to our station and 20 minutes later, when we pulled up to the 72nd Marina boat launch, my CO was waiting. I helped the elderly men to the ambulance and reported to my CO. He wasn’t happy but he was under control and patiently asked me questions. I walked him through the scenario and my decision-making process. I was informed that there would be an investigation and I would need to write a formal statement but he would have my back.
Six months later the investigation was over and I received the Commandant’s Letter of Commendation Ribbon for an unusual and/or outstanding act or service.
Sometimes we create policies with the hope that it will keep us safe, but in both business and life playing it safe can be deadly.