The Vital Few
I arrived at the warehouse early. A space about 30 by 40 had been cleared for the training. I set up my teaching equipment. The trainees would be a group of telephone installers and maintenance repairmen with a reputation for being incorrigible troublemakers in a small remote town in the foothills far from the controlling influence of traditional management. They had just run off the third supervisor within the last year and a half. At the regional office, everyone referred to this group as “the knuckle-draggers.”
A few minutes after the scheduled start time, the sounds of multiple motorcycle engines reverberated through the tin building, like being inside a base drum. It moved from the far end of the building to a spot just outside the east wall that surrounded the meeting facility.
Seven guys came through the doorway, one by one, in their bandana headwrap, rubber-banded pony tails, sleeveless vests with tattoos showing, non-regulation attire, and attitudes prominently displayed.
I have conducted speaking engagements and training workshops in many states, several nations, and on two continents at every level from hourly employees to CEO, and often under extremely diverse circumstances, so I do not panic. But on this occasion I came close. I prefer to recall my feeling as “significant uneasiness” about the probabilities that this workshop would be successful.
Having owned a Harley during my youth, I tried to build some rapport. With arms folded, they were not impressed. I explained the purpose of the week-long training, the process we would follow, and the opportunities that would be extended to them as they completed their training. They were still not impressed, maybe more so.
I began the training with a description of a special process for prioritizing problems and creating solutions. They talked and laughed among themselves. I assigned them a task that applied the tools I had just described in a group interaction format within a set of guidelines for collaboration. They enjoyed the interaction but didn’t focus exclusively on the task as I had requested and didn’t follow the rules.
I spent half of the first day teaching team tools. I gave them assignments to work on real tasks from their actual work environment throughout the other half of the day. They seemed to mellow out somewhat as a result of the real-time activities. However, as I reflected on the day en route to the motel, it felt like too little gain and too much waste.
The second day began with the motorcycle engines reverberating just before start time. The guys arrived through the same door, punctual, again in their unconventional attire. Their attitude, while not eager, seemed slightly less belligerent, perhaps even somewhat receptive, anticipating more group participation.
An event occurred about mid afternoon on the second day that turned everything completely around. In order to teach them certain innovation techniques, I had asked them to select a real problem within their jurisdiction that was too difficult to solve or an objective that was beyond their ability to achieve. They selected the installation of a telephone plant cable from the base of a rugged mountain on the eastern foothills, across precipitous and snow-covered peaks and valleys, to connect with a switching office at the base of the mountain on the western side.
By the end of class that day, the group had not reached a workable method but they had made significant progress. They had developed several unique ideas that made the impossible task begin to look possible.
The motorcycles arrived 25 minutes early on the third day. Each of the guys had thought about the task overnight and came in with many fresh and invigorating ideas. They began working on the mountain task before the designated start time and without waiting for instructions from me. In fact, they were so intent on sharing ideas and arguing viewpoints, they ignored me. Their verbiage was informal, loud, and energized.
By mid-morning they had arrived at a workable method that would save the company more than a quarter of a million dollars that had been budgeted for the project, and to do it in 30 days.
But the cost reduction, although important, was not what drove their excitement.
A special team of engineers had been assigned to the task the previous week. They had already budgeted huge sums for renting heavy-lift helicopters and other specialized equipment. Everyone at the region headquarters knew this task was too important, too difficult, and too expensive to entrust to the knuckle draggers.
The guys in my class had also accepted that perception when they came in on the first day. However, as part of the assignment, they had begun to think outside the box. They discovered they had the expertise to lay the cable and they knew how to do it without the helicopters.
Once they saw the objective as one they could achieve, we began working on strategic and tactical planning techniques. By mid-day on the fourth day, they had developed a comprehensive project plan, multiple contingency plans, a timeline, and a budget that saved most of the money that had been allocated to the engineers.
I was amazed at their enthusiasm for the task and their confidence in their ability to achieve it. This did not seem like the same group that roared in on Monday.
They asked permission to make a presentation of their plan to management. I contacted the region and arranged for a presentation on the coming Saturday morning.
The guys spent most of Friday reviewing their plan for any flaws or oversights. They conducted a practice run.
To my surprise, five executives showed up at the warehouse on Saturday morning. I had expected two and would have been satisfied with one.
We arranged for a guest table and chairs for the executives.
The guys developed the team name “The Vital Few.” They wore their traditional service uniforms. The camaraderie among them was obvious. I introduced the team and then turned the presentation completely over to them.
The team had their presentation mapped out on flipchart paper with copies for the executives. Each member took turns presenting certain segments of the plan. The plan was logical, sequential, accurate, and comprehensive. They presented it in pragmatic business terminology. They documented their cost figures with hard-copy vendor bids and labor rates they had obtained from the region office.
Four of the guys had done extensive work in the mountain area at different times in the past and knew the terrain from personal experience. That became obvious in the details within their plans. This was critical data the engineers did not have.
The confidence and enthusiasm of “The Vital Few” was palpable and powerful. Their commitment to excellence and cost-effectiveness was diametrically opposite to the prevailing opinion that they were rebellious brats with nothing but contempt for the corporate culture. In a two-hour presentation they demonstrated a comprehensive grasp of corporate reality and an untapped reserve of knowledge and expertise that far exceeded everything I had been told about them.
All that enthusiasm, expertise, and cost savings seemed to fall off a cliff when they concluded the presentation. I knew the regional office had a low opinion of these guys, but I felt that surely this presentation should have shown their tremendous potential, even to the worst skeptic.
But there was no response from the executives. No smiles, no favorable nods, no statement of appreciation, nothing. Stone dead silence. One second, two seconds, three.
Then, an explosion of applause. All at once, as if a bomb had gone off. Their silence was not from disapproval. It was because they were awed and stunned. How could these knuckle draggers come up with a plan tha t was better than the engineers and at a tiny fraction of the cost? From their old perception it was not possible. Yet they had just witnessed it in tangible reality.
The executives approved the plan, empowered “The Vital Few” to implement it, and the team delivered the completed land line under budget and ahead of schedule.
Since then, whenever people seem to buy into the myth that only those with advanced degrees and prestigious titles are capable of genius, I smile quietly and remember with great fondness “The Vital Few.”