In the movie Casablanca, there’s a famous scene where Captain Renault, the head of the French police, avoids investigating the murder of a Nazi officer by telling his people to “round up the usual suspects.” The implication, of course, is that everyone should look busy and professional, even if the routine doesn’t really accomplish anything.
I’m always reminded of this line when I see managers respond to performance challenges by putting together a task force of the “usual suspects” to deal with the issue. These task force members usually end up with multiple specialty assignments piled on top of their regular duties. And because these few go-to people are spread so thin, they ultimately don’t accomplish all that much.
Managers sometimes “round up the usual suspects” because they only trust a small number of people to handle key projects or initiatives. Every organization has its “glue people,” the ones who don’t show up in organization charts but are assigned to every task force or initiative because they are respected and trusted. For example, in one organization undergoing a major restructuring, each division designated a “transformation leader” as its point person for the work. However, each person also had significant managerial responsibilities, regularly represented the company at customer and industry forums, served on standing committees, and juggled other major project assignments. So while they were all capable and willing to do what was needed, the effort suffered due to lack of time and bandwidth.
Here’s another case in point: A financial services company was struggling to turn around a large business unit. One of the key initiatives was a new customer-service approach that involved a combination of new systems, training, and process changes. However, after almost a year of work and significant investment, very little had changed. In fact, the effort had generated some fear and resistance in the customer care centers and, if anything, performance was now worse. In response to pressure from the CEO to get the turnaround back on track, the business head “rounded up the usual suspects” into a task force to recommend how to accelerate progress. Of course, the members of this team, while all very capable and well-meaning, were the same ones who were leading the various project work streams – and they all had full-time “day jobs.” So due to the limited time available, they merely rehashed their recommendations for the project, and progress continued at a snail’s pace.
If any of this sounds familiar, take a step back and think about how to expand your talent pool to get the actual results you want. Do a quick mapping of your committees, task forces, and other special assignment groups, to see if you have a “usual suspect” bottleneck. Although individual executives may engage in this dynamic intentionally (like Captain Renault), most do not; it just happens. By sketching out these responsibilities, and looking at them holistically, it’s possible to see whether the same names come up again and again. If that’s indeed the case, then consider lightening the load for some by prioritizing assignments, consolidating teams, and, most importantly, adding other people to the list. Are there other capable people who would welcome additional assignments? Perhaps some high potentials who are not being fully challenged? Is it possible to trust some other people outside of your “usual suspects” circle?
On the flip side, if you feel that you are one of the overburdened few who gets called on over and over, speak up. In my experience, many of the “usual suspects” suffer in silence. They are flattered by the attention and the opportunities, but they become overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility and frustrated by the lack of time to get everything done. And because they are good corporate citizens who don’t want to disappoint, they don’t push back, which reinforces the “usual suspect” scenario.
Most organizations have ambitious agendas that are limited by the availability of key people. There may indeed be times when calling upon a few trusted people is the right approach, but doing it too often can be severely constraining. That’s why thinking outside the roster of “usual suspects” can help you distribute responsibilities in a more even, efficient way.
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