We all find ourselves watching the news, or reading a newspaper, then shaking our head and saying "Why’d they do that?" When it all seems so obvious, why do leaders take action that seems counter to their goals?
Take the recent case at Wal-Mart (see chart here). A 52 year old employee gets hit by a truck and brain damaged. Wal-Mart’s insurance pays out $470,000 in health care costs. Yea! Great PR story for how WalMart sticks by employees that sign up for health insurance. But that wasn’t the story printed in the newspaper. When the family, at their own expense, sued the trucking company for lost future wages, pain and suffering and future care needs – winning $417,000 after expenses. But, that still wasn’t the story getting attention. No, what got a lot of attention was when Wal-Mart sued the now invalid and institutionalized former employee to get back its $470,000, won, and admitted it was taking the money away from her! (Read account of story on CNN.com here.)
Let’s just skip over whether Wal-Mart was right or wrong – legally or ethically. More practically, how much does Wal-Mart spend on Advertising and PR every year? Let’s see, $360B revenue at just 1% would be over $3B. So Wal-Mart wants customers to think well of the company and shop there.
As a result of the company’s lawsuit it gets back $470K – that’s .013% of its ad/PR budget. About enough to buy a couple of major market TV ads. Meanwhile, the airwaves (and blogsphere) get flooded with the story and its negative sounding impacts. MSNBC on its Countdown show labels Walmart "the worst person in the world" (see video here.) CNN puts the video onto its hourly loop for everyone to see (see video here). Anderson Cooper makes it a feature discussion on his television show. Even the L.A. Times writes a negative opinion about it in the newspaper (read here.) What would all of that PR cost WalMart to acquire for a positive story? Millions if not tens of millions of dollars. But it could have avoided all that cost for a mere $470,000.
Today WalMart is far from being a beloved company. There are those who like Wal-Mart, but there are those who don’t. For shareholders and employees, converting those that don’t like Wal-Mart into someone who does is beneficial, as it can raise sales, margins, future expectations for performance and even the stock price. As a simple business decision, why would anyone at WalMart decide to go after $470,000 when the risks are so enormous? Why not let this one go? Why do that (make the decision to sue this woman)?
Unfortunately, Locked-in organizations have no choice. When the Lock-in becomes too great, no options really present themselves. There is no room for creative thinking – even if that thinking were intended to help reach the goal. Behavior is no longer goal driven, but instead becomes executing the Locked-in Success Formula no matter what the potential outcomes. Just read this quote from Wal-Mart’s spokesperson (taken from the above referenced CNN article) "Wal-Mart’s plan is bound by very specific rules… We wish it could be more flexible in Mrs. Shank’s case since her circumstances are clearly extraordinary, but this is done out of fairness to all associates who contribute to, and benefit from, the plan." No room for flexibility, no matter the impact or outcome.
If every employee donated $.40 it would recover all the money Wal-Mart apparently saved by suing the damaged woman. But did Wal-Mart ask its employees if they would rather donate $.40 or sue her? Did anyone at Wal-Mart say "you know, this could cost us $10million in damaging PR – maybe it would be more valuable to our employees if we skipped this lawsuit." Obviously not.
When you wonder "Why did they do that?" remember this story of Wal-Mart. Locked-in organizations completely lose sight of their objective when making decisions that serve to Defend & Extend the Lock-in. And once decisions are made, the Status Quo police and all the rest of the organization jump to its defense — rather than think through what was going on. All any executive had to say was "oops, I think we blew this one. Let’s tell that to the press, drop the suit, and give this woman a $20,000 bonus while offering her husband a job in janitorial" and the bad press would have been diffused – possibly leading to a positive spin. But that’s not how Locked-in organizations behave – and that’s Why They Did That.