The Keepers

In a business discussion recently about change processes and managing change, a colleague remarked on the organisational ‘nightmare keepers’. The label was used to describe individuals who, when faced with any sort of change, brought out the nightmare stories.

The stories concerned all the reasons why something couldn’t be done and what had happened last time something (like that) was tried. They described the inevitable fallout and the reasons why staff wouldn’t or couldn’t accept the new ideas. They told of the trail of failed initiatives brought in by the new brooms over the years. The nightmare keepers, in sharing their stories with others, believed themselves to be offering a valid, considered view. However, they were largely unaware that they were perceived by some staff as major barriers to progress, because of their negative, change-resistant attitude.

The ‘nightmare keepers’ was such a catchy, useful phrase, that my mind leapt immediately to Harry Potter and the game of Quidditch. I wondered what other keepers might be found in organisations. I’ve identified a few however I’m sure that others could be added to the list.

The ‘goal keepers’ are the individuals who have a vision for their organisation. They see the future. They know where they are now and where they need to be. They know the external influences that impact on the business as well as the internal factors that help and hinder the business’s progress. They know what’s needed to achieve their goals. They dream and plan and either give their ideas to others to flesh out and implement or they do it themselves.

The ‘knowledge keepers’ know how work is to be done and how it all came to be. They have the history of the business and know every step in its development over the years. They also know where the business is heading and what is needed to ensure success. They know all the stakeholders and all the interpersonal and organisational connections, however subtle.

The ‘culture keepers’ are the people who establish or maintain the organisational culture. They know how they want the organisation to be. They set out to establish and maintain the culture through rituals, language and practices. They work to instil the culture throughout. They lead by example and require others to do the same. They share their values and stories. They continue to create new norms over time, to add to the cultural mix.

The ‘task keepers’ are the ones who make things happen and ‘do the doing’. They flesh out and then implement the organisation’s plans. They work to the deadlines, on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. They deliver on expectations and achieve results. They’re part of teams and they gather information. They delegate tasks, monitor activities and provide feedback to others. They generate ideas, do their research and fine-tune processes.

The ‘gate keepers’ are individuals who guard or control either flows of information or access to people within the organisation. They may filter information, neither giving out too much nor too little. They assist others to keep on track and stop potential diversions or interruptions. They discern information, check for appropriate action and use their discretion. They monitor what’s happening around the people they gate keep for. Their role may be perceived negatively by some who believe that gate keeping to any extent creates unnecessary blocks to the workplace flow.

The ‘nightmare keepers’ are those individuals who protect the status quo. They know the organisation’s past and present changes and the difficulties that may have arisen. They have an eye for pitfalls and a view to the worst that could happen. They don’t feel comfortable unless the perceived or actual pitfalls are avoided or eliminated altogether. The nightmare keepers do provide a valuable early alert to the ‘what-if’ scenarios, should others care to listen.

It can be said that regardless of our role within a business, we may be called upon to fill all of these positions, at different times. It may depend upon the situation we’re in at the time and our primary role. It depends also on organisational need – where the organisation is; where it needs to be and the gaps in between those two posts. A difficulty may arise however, if people stay fixed in one set position, when the game plan requires forward movement, fast responses and great flexibility. And the lesson for us all? It’s important to keep up the levels of organisational fitness so that we’re ready and able to snatch – or is it snitch – every opportunity.

First Published in NZBusiness May 2004

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