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The Department Cupboard – An Employee Engagement Metaphor

In about the year 2000, people inside the department noticed that the department cupboard had become quite untidy.  People outside of the department also noticed this!

So, the decision was made to get a brand new cupboard

It was a fairly standard cupboard, 2 by 3 meters with 6 shelves. It couldn’t fit everything in but people got by with a bit of creativity.  Those who understood how the old cupboard got messy, spent a lot of time trying to ensure the new cupboard remained tidy.  They put in labels, gave instructions as to what was to be filed where, changed the 2 doors to 6 doors, varied the height of the shelves and gave keys to different people for different parts of the cupboard.  Inside the cupboard, things became much tidier and people could find what they needed when they needed it.

But, some people within the department grew a little frustrated with the daily routines needed to keep the cupboard tidy.  It took time out of a busy day when there were more important things to do!  So, it came to pass that a number of smaller cupboards were purchased to make their lives easier.

Then there were people from other departments who wondered what on earth was in the cupboard.  They had no use for the cupboard and decided that the space could be put to far better use.  So the decision was made to get rid of the cupboard, and also to say goodbye to those who were tasked with keeping it tidy.

This was very confusing for those in the department, particularly for those whose ‘important’ role it was to keep the cupboard tidy!  They wondered how this important role had so quickly become unimportant.  They also wondered why no one had asked them what was in the cupboard!

Now, getting rid of the cupboard and those who had to keep it tidy, started to have some negative effects.  Things once again became quite untidy – not overnight, ever so slowly, but most definitely the mess was getting worse.

Those from other departments started to be affected by the mess, and complained about the people in the other department.  “What a mess”, they said.  They had forgotten about the cupboard they had gotten rid of, and they had forgotten about the people who knew what used to be inside the cupboard.

Those in charge of the department wanted to solve the problem.  They reminded others about the old cupboard and about those who had kept it tidy.  The problem was that the cupboard space had been used up!

People from other departments told their ‘colleagues’ in the department that they just needed to work harder to keep things tidy.  They commented that there was no reason why they could not get along quite well without a cupboard.  It felt really good to give advice to those with the untidy cupboard.  .

So the people in the department tried their best to make do.  They really wanted to please – but they kept on getting into trouble as more and more mess appeared.  So they tried a little bit harder!  At times they did wonder why no one spoke to them about the cause of the mess.

Some big mistakes started to appear, with questions being asked of the department.  Some, who had never had a look at the inside of the old cupboard, had ‘good ideas’ about how to fix things.  After all, these people were experienced managers, good at fixing things.  They were particularly good at demonstrating how others could do things better!

So, many more small cupboards started to appear, with many more cupboard cleaners, with many different cupboard designs, but with each cupboard having much the same contents.  It seemed really important to the people outside the department that they had their own cupboard!

Then, a really big mistake happened which caused the big boss to look inside one of the small cupboards.  What a shock!  There was a lot of stuff missing that should have been there, and also a lot of stuff there that should not have been there!  This resulted in a good look at the other cupboards.  What a shock!

And so it happened that those outside the department decided to put another cupboard in the department – to keep things tidy.

It was a fairly standard cupboard, 2 by 3 meters with 6 shelves. It couldn’t fit everything in but people got by with a bit of creativity.  Those who understood how the old cupboard got messy, spent a lot of time trying to ensure the new cupboard remained tidy.  They put in labels, gave instructions as to what was to be filed where, changed the 2 doors to 6 doors, varied the height of the shelves and gave keys to different people for different parts of the cupboard.  Inside the cupboard, things became much tidier and people could find what they needed when they needed it.

BUT ………………………………………………

Reposition’s purpose is to assist business leaders ‘reposition’ aspects of their business for enhanced performance.  The ‘Story of the Cupboard’ was written by John Reed, who incorporated Reposition in late 2009.  It captures, in the form of a metaphor, the damaging impact of ill-conceived business initiatives.  Reposition sets out to assist leaders develop and implement well conceived business initiatives that favourably impact morale and performance.

“Reflect on the past, reposition for what lies ahead”

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