What Lies Beneath?
The Patch Quarry and site of the QuarryWorks Theater, Adamant Vermont
Have you ever been to an old quarry that was submerged and abandoned years ago? They are typically quite pretty. And they can be a lot like your organization.
“What lies beneath?” is a question that great leaders are not afraid to ask, and answer. It is easier to ask than to answer and even easier to not ask at all. But you go there at your own peril. Getting the answers might be the key to your success as a leader. Turns out “What Lies Beneath?” is also the title of a supernatural thriller from 2000.1 It was filmed in Vermont and features a reference to a fictionalized version of a little unincorporated hamlet called Adamant. The Adamant in this story is 100% real and is the home of a pretty cool old quarry.
My life as a quarry
Let me share the story of this quarry and see if you can spot the parallels to one or more organizations you have been in.
You call me an abandoned quarry. But I still think of myself as a mountain. I started as a molten mass at the top of earth's mantle. Deep underground, under immense heat and pressure I formed into a part of the earth's crust. Some 300 million years ago I cooled into a bluish-gray granite made up of quartz, feldspar and mica.2 Shrubs and trees came and grew on top of me wherever they could find nutrients. Many layers built up and I became a tree-covered mountain. Eventually people discovered my stone. They cleared the trees and dirt on top of me and turned me into a quarry.
Typical Vermont Quarry circa 1900 - copyright expired
Here in Vermont we have a lot of quarries. Some are still active, many more have been abandoned. In my little town of Calais, there is an unincorporated hamlet called Adamant. That is where I live. My stone is quite useful. People cut it into blocks and stack it to make great buildings and monuments. Much of the hard, speckled gray stones of my family was used to build the federal buildings in Washington DC. A little over one hundred years ago the economic activity in Adamant was all about the quarries. I was called the Patch Quarry.
I was operated by the Hughes Granite & Quarry Co. of Montpelier. My stone mainly went to the American Midwest to become monuments and memorials.3 The men drilled and blasted and dug out my desirable stone. Sometimes they dig deep enough to open up access to the water table. When that happened to me, a spring of water opened up and began to flood me. Men brought in pumps to hold off the inevitable for a while. But eventually the costs outweighed the benefits. I flooded and the people moved on.
Once I was abandoned, I was slowly reclaimed by nature. Trees, shrubs and meadow flowers returned. Eventually it became quite pretty. Families came for picnics. Others come after dark for their own festivities. The abandoned gear at the bottom of me was joined by a small army of empty beer bottles. The waters hide whatever they are fed - old used tires and an unwanted refrigerator went in. In the seventies a Ford Crown Victoria was pushed over the edge, floated briefly and disappeared beneath a flury of bubbles. While I look pretty up topside, a tangled and hazardous mess lies underneath. Now I am silently hazardous. The calm waters hide real perils and I fear that one day some kids will be playing in the water or jumping off my cliffs and will get badly hurt, or worse.
Abandoned gear and spoil at the Patch Quarry, Adamant VT - home to the Quarry Works Theater, part of the Frank Suchomel Memorial Arts Center.
No problem is a problem
Did you spot any parallels to organizations you have been a part of?
The illusion of no problems is a big one for me. Folks might look at the pretty quarry and say “no problem”. But as the quarry told us, there are big problems just under the surface. The problems make the quarry unfit for any but the current, narrowly-scoped activities - and sometimes even for those! This is why the story of the quarry makes such a great metaphor for your organization. Have you ever run up against some sunken danger beneath the surface?
Maybe after a few years of refining your team through training, becoming more agile, and working to improve your processes, one might look at your organization and say the same - “no problem.” But famously, no problem IS a problem. In a 2010 article published by the MIT Sloan Management Review titled How to Change a Culture: Lessons from NUMMI 4 John Shook tells a funny story about what “no problem” in Japanese sounds like. He also writes “...the most important and difficult “cultural shift” that has to occur in a lean manufacturing transformation revolves around the entire concept of problems. What is our attitude toward them? How do we think about them? What do we do when we find them? What do we do when someone else finds and exposes one?” While the author is referring to lean manufacturing, the very same can be said about your team of knowledge workers.
In many organizations there is a cultural bias against “having problems”. In reality, whenever the biggest problem is solved, a new (hopefully smaller) one reveals itself to be the biggest. The cycle of fixing smaller and smaller problems in pursuit of perfection never really ends. Plus, the problems don’t always get smaller since we all operate in dynamic environments. The job of a leader is to demonstrate a dispassionate quest to uncover new problems. Call them opportunities if you prefer, but you can’t fix what you don’t see.
Modern leaders create an environment where teams are rewarded for taking a dispassionate assessment of what is really happening. They find ways to “lower the water level” in the quarry so the team can see past the water and to the real hazards. The water comes in many forms - too much work in progress, other parts of the business back-channeling with developers, and even micro-accomodations can mask problems. Lowering the water level takes practice and acting on what you find may be delicate. The quest to see and change requires precursors, not the least of which is psychological safety. When a team is brave enough and empowered to address what lies beneath, you’ve opened the door to solving problems at the root causes and unlock real change.
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1 - What Lies Beneath is a 2000 American supernatural horror thriller film directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as a couple who live in a haunted house. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Lies_Beneath
2 - Report of the State Geologist on the Mineral Industries snd Geology of Certain Areas of Vermont - 1907-1908
3 - Details gleaned from Stone Quarries and Beyond, compiled by Peggy B. Perazzo
4 - MITSloan Management Review, Winter 2010, Page 68
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