What Are Your Team's Broken Printers?
You probably have a few and, yes, 'broken printer' is a metaphor
[This is a lightly modified excerpt from Team Habits.]
“I’m at my wits’ end, Charlie! This project ended up back on my lap, even though two months ago, I told the team I was concerned that this would happen, and they were, too. Now I can’t get to my real strategic work because I’m doing their work!”
Better Team Habits is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“Oof, it sucks when you see the train coming and you still get hit by it.”
“Right?! I can’t figure out why this keeps happening. Why can’t they just…do it?”
“They’re all smart, experienced, and committed to the goal, right?”
“Yes. That’s what makes this so hard!”
“Okay, so what we’re dealing with here is a broken printer.”
“Huh? What’s a broken printer have to do with this?”
“I’m so burned out, Charlie! I spend all day answering questions, approving things that don’t need approval, and reminding people what we talked about. The only way I’m keeping my job is that I get up three hours earlier to do my work before the team gets online.”
“That’s rough. Is this a recent thing, or has it been going on for a while?”
“I’ve been here two years, and it was this way when I got here. No matter how many conversations I have, they roll back in the next day with more questions.”
“Got it. What we’re dealing with here is a broken printer.”
“Uh…I don’t think you understand. We work remotely, and this has nothing to do with printers.”
“I can’t get my best work done, Charlie! As soon as I get to work, I’m in meetings most of the day, and when I’m out of meetings, I have to catch up on Slack threads to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”
“Yeah, it’s hard to do any of your best or deep work when your schedule looks like Swiss cheese. I’m curious: Is it this way just for you or for others struggling with the same thing?”
“It’s all of us! It seems like every other meeting or Slack thread, we talk about how many meetings we have or how we’re behind on Slack.”
“Hmm. Seems like we’re dealing with a broken printer, then.”
“You’re such a Boomer, my dude. Nobody prints stuff anymore.”
I have conversations like the ones above every day with clients, readers, and students. Yes, I do get teased about being a Boomer even though I’m on the threshold between Gen X and Millennial, and yes, I do find it hilarious.
And I do end up unpacking what I mean by “broken printer.” Every team has them—including yours. It’s probably why you picked up this book. So what’s a broken printer?
Every organization I’ve ever worked at or consulted with has had a literal broken printer that everyone knows about but no one fixes. You know the one.
It’s the printer that leaves a streak down the page, which is fine for a team meeting agenda but not when it’s time to provide a printout for the Big Boss or a customer.
Or the printer that randomly eats paper or needs the special kind of paper that never seems to be in stock.
Or the one that’s downstairs in the office manager’s office, but she’s always in meetings. By the time she’s out, the team has to figure out which printout belongs to whom.
Or the one that has a passcode people can never remember or that always needs to be reprogrammed.
Or the one sitting on someone’s desk, in a closet, or on the unused extra chair in the corner of the conference room.
There’s always a broken printer. It may not seem like a broken printer is a big deal until you look at the downstream effects. Because the printer’s broken:
Teammates are rushed and frazzled in front of the Big Boss or customer because they had to scramble to reprint everything after the printer left that 🤬 streak.
The paper budget for the office is always over because of that special kind of paper.
The IT department (aka Liz) has to stop what they’re doing to fix the printer seven times a week, costing them—and everyone else—time.
People are distracted during meetings because they’re looking at agendas and docs on devices rather than printed agendas and review copies. Whatever’s being discussed has to compete with notifications, emails, and inadequate screen sizes.
Someone always has to roll another chair into the conference room, adding another five minutes of work before the meeting or creating a “wait for Taylor to get settled in” awkward start to the meeting.
Each small downstream effect from the broken printer may seem insignificant. But when multiplied by how frequently these small effects occur, they lead to massive waste, inefficiency, and demoralization.
The Progress Principle by Steven Kramer and Teresa Amabile showed that the frequency of small setbacks and frustrations plays an outsized role in a team’s morale and engagement. The grumbling, exasperation, and “keep it together before I lose my shit” moments that are happening because of the broken printer become part of the emotional labor of your daily work.
But here’s the deal: For most teams, it would cost less than $500 to replace the printer. It might even just be a matter of noticing the printer in the corner and getting rid of it. Thousands of dollars in wasted team hours and daily #FML moments are hinging on a $500 decision or fifteen-minute action.
The broken printer isn’t a big deal; what it causes and why it’s not being addressed are huge deals. We can call a meeting that costs the organization twice what replacing a printer would without thinking about it, but the broken printer is an intractable problem?
The broken printer is a symptom of root-cause team dynamics that we’ll discuss shortly, but in case your work hasn’t been disrupted by a broken printer, don’t worry—it’s not really about printers.
Sometimes It’s Not a Printer
I’ve been talking about actual printers because the pattern of broken printers is near ubiquitous, tangible, and easy to understand for those of us who’ve been in the workforce for a while, which makes the broken printer a perfect shorthand for all those small and fixable breaks in the ways we work with each other.
But plenty of broken printers aren’t literally printers. For instance, one of my executive coaching clients recently found out that one of her organization’s mental health therapists hadn’t been able to see her patients for the previous three months because she was missing an $8 computer cord.
Not even considering the many thousands of dollars my client’s organization had spent on the therapist’s salary, the therapist wasn’t serving her patients during the COVID-19 pandemic—exactly when many of them were struggling with their mental health. The therapist’s manager had known she needed a cord for three months, as had the IT department. It was only during a meeting called because of inaccurate financial reporting that this came up.
Yes, an $8 cord. Rest assured that my client made sure the therapist had her cord the day we talked about it.
A broken printer doesn’t even have to be a physical issue. Take the CC Thread from Hell. Untold hours of many people’s days are spent reading email CC threads trying to figure out how—or whether—they’re relevant.1 The same pattern has moved to group chat tools such as Slack with overmentioning groups and channel bombing. Most of us know it’s a problem, but no one is doing anything to fix it.
Or maybe your broken printer is the “choose your own adventure” way that teammates give each other tasks: some use email, some text, some Slack; others call meetings; and a rare few actually task people in the team task management app. People need to look in seven different places for incoming tasks and hope they catch them all.
Or maybe it’s requesting permissions on collaborative documents several times a day. It’s not clicking the button to request permissions that’s the biggest annoyance. It’s being stuck while waiting for thirty minutes, a few hours, or until the next day for the document owner to come back around. And let’s not even get started about how many times we’ve been left hanging with permission fails when someone goes on vacation.
Just as the physical broken printer doesn’t have to remain broken, these ways of working with each other—what I’ll call workways—are all fixable.
What Are Workways?
Our workways are determined by a mix of our team habits, organizational policies, technology, regulatory compliance, and org structure. Each of these creates a system, and, as in any system, changes or effects in one of them can change or create effects in other parts. These workways can support our work if they’re healthy, or they can get in the way if they’re broken—and not addressing broken workways is a choice.
For this book, I will be focusing on the subset of workways around team habits because they’re the universal subset of workways that we all participate in and can change. Just as we have personal habits that may be good or bad, every team has habits that support the work or get in the way. And just as with personal habits, it’s possible to identify the bad ones and shift them into something more positive.
I want to make this point clear: No matter your role in the company, you have the power to change your team’s habits. And improving team habits can be a lever to make changes in other, more intractable workways.
We can all change team habits and that doesn’t mean we all have the same power to do so or that the weight of other workways won’t be working against us. Many of us work in rigid hierarchies or in workplaces that are riddled with thorny group dynamics. Many of us are from backgrounds that mean we’ll be fighting implicit biases within our organization or the greater culture. Many of us are in industries with heavily ingrained norms and structural limitations.
That said, we can spend time grimacing and complaining about things that we can’t change or are not well-positioned to change while overlooking the stuff we can change right in front of us. Railing against macro workways like your industry’s norms doesn’t do much to solve the way those norms influence your team habits. Since you’re going to have team habits regardless of what’s happening in your industry, you’re better off acknowledging those industry norms and getting busy with changing your team habits today, where you are.
In a world where most leadership, teamwork, and change management books focus on lofty ideas, the future of work, and grand strategies, I’m proposing something simple and mundane: If you want your team to work better, focus on your team habits.
What Are Your Team’s Broken Printers?
Maybe it is an actual broken printer that’s time to find a new home and/or replaced by one that actually works the way your team needs it to.
But it’s probably something more intangible like how there’s never a meeting agenda, it’s not clear who makes a decision (for what), or that what should be a weekly routine that everyone understands is somehow a Scooby Doo episode every week.
Instead of taking on something like changing your team’s meeting culture, think in terms of individual team habits in that we can work on. In a future post, I’ll share the eight categories of team habits. [We have a Team Habits quiz you can take, too, but I’m currently figuring out how to tie that to Substack rather than Productive Flourishing. Stay tuned for an update on this!]
The average professional spends 28% of the work day reading and answering email, according to a McKinsey analysis. I’m not sure how much of that 28% is for CC threads alone, but think about how many of the emails you end up reading for and at work fall into the camp of “what is this? why does it matter? Do I need to do anything with it?” bucket that CC threads fall into.