Ants and Elephants

Photo credit: Exit Through The Gift Shop: A Banksy Film

July 17, 2017

By Blue Anderson

When I was in “regular” retail, I had a boss who liked to divide problems into two groups: ant issues, which are those annoying little everyday things, and elephants – big, thunderous issues that can cause havoc if left to run amok. He said he only wanted to be given elephants, and the managers were there to handle the ants. I remember asking him – what do you do when there are so many ants that they become elephants? He said that was impossible, as they were two different creatures.

As leaders in our institutions, it is natural that we want to be given the elephants, especially the well-trained beasts that challenge our creative side. Those big projects that can be sexy, daring, even exhausting, but we love to birth those babies and watch them grow.

Not so much the small stuff. It might be that “All Proceeds” sign slightly askew, a stack of tee shirts hastily folded, or dust bunnies on the top glass shelf where no one can easily reach. We walk past them and say “oh I’ll get to that later” or worse – “it’s not so bad”.

It could be the little things in managing your team that you let slip by – Greg is 5 minutes late; Joanie came in with denim pants; Felicia is checking her Facebook. We cut our team some slack {for whatever reason we come up with} because it’s an “ant” issue. Again with “it’s not so bad”. We’re too busy dealing with our elephants, so those things have to wait.

Pesky ants, meanwhile, are marching right along – first just a few, followed by a few more, and then a steady stream of little creepy crawlies. We know that nest is somewhere, but don’t have time to find it while we are feeding our elephants. We might try to stomp a few or spray the line with our favorite bug killer, but the trail is still there.

Ants can eat at the foundation of our businesses, and it can happen if we get lost in our big projects and don’t tend to the ants as well. Some of the things I’ve used to “find the nest”:

  • Acknowledge your ants, and knock off a small one every day
  • Ask a trusted staff member to give you a signal if you are getting too involved in the big projects – mine calls me BB (I won’t tell what that’s for), and that alerts me to pay attention
  • “Deputize” a lead sales person to watch for ants – writing them down can show you how often the issue is coming up
  • Be aware that sometimes staff can just be gripers and don’t want you to fix a problem – take it off your plate!
  • If it involves customer service or security, it’s not an ant – do it first
  • Give yourself permission to let other people fumble
  • Have regular volunteers “specialize” in a particular task – you’ll know that task will get done at least once a week

My staff and I still use Ants and Elephants in our daily jargon to help determine the urgency of an issue. But, not necessarily the importance of an issue. They are, to me, the same creature.

Send me an email on what you do to slay your ants

anderson_headshotBlue Anderson is the current MSA Board Secretary and the Manager of Visitor Services at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.

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