Do You Have One Rule to Rule Them All?

Trigger Question #156

The elephant in the room? Conflicting strategies, rules, and procedures. (Created with Microsoft Copilot)

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Do you know the story of Paul O’Neill and Alcoa? If so, I’m sorry for you, because I am still going to tell my version.

People in business knew Paul O’Neill as a Washington bureaucrat because of his time as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, even though he later spent 10 years as a senior executive, including a spell as president, of International Paper. They did not see him as a turnaround specialist.

In 1987, Alcoa was in trouble. The board desperately needed a turnaround specialist. Instead, they appointed Paul O’Neill as Chairman and CEO. Thirteen years later, Alcoa’s market capitalization was up by $27B and its stock was five times the 1987 price. How did he do it?

Here’s what Paul O’Neill said in his first public address: “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.”

Say what? Safety, not turnaround?

Shareholders, analysts and financial reporters were unimpressed. In fact, many people sold their shares before they had even left the ballroom hosting the gathering. Well, history shows just how well that bit of panic worked for them.

Here’s the trick the not-turnaround-specialist played on Alcoa and its stakeholders. No-one could sanely argue that safety wasn’t important. Not the unions, not shareholders, not the workers, not management. But O’Neill knew that getting them all to focus on safety would require a complete redesign of how they worked, including the equipment in use. And so make Alcoa efficient once again. And profitable.

But profit was not his focus. If it had been, people would have argued endlessly about his attempt at a turnaround strategy.

If you know what you stand for and what your organization stands for, then it is easy to design your One Rule to Rule Them All. And if you get it right, then people in your organization will know exactly what is expected of them.

Clearly, Paul O’Neill’s One Rule to Rule Them All was to make Alcoa the safest company in America, to go for zero injuries. The results were spectacular.

So what is the one thing, the one belief, the one rule, that you can state about your organization, division, or department, that no-one can sanely disagree with, and all can buy into?

Uncover that and you, too, might be spectacularly successful.

Welcome to my side of the nonsense divide.

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(What is my One Rule to Rule Them All? Always look for the sense in nonsense. Because nonsense has a purpose. It works at getting you to change your ways.)

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