Corporate Eye

Without Warning: on leadership, whistleblowers, corporate culture and silence

Without Warning

Do you have an uncomfortable suspicion that your business has a problem lurking in its depths? Is there an issue that you keep catching a glimpse of out of the corner of your eye, but can’t quite get hold of?

This is what Rodney N Johnson’s book, ‘Without Warning’ is about, and he calls these ‘silent problems’, as opposed to simple, complex or wicked problems.

  • A simple problem is one in which everyone agrees on the problem and on the solution. If not solved correctly, this could become a complex problem.
  • A complex problem: one in which everyone agrees on the problem, but disagrees on the solution.
  • A wicked problem: a problem (or nest of problems), in which people disagree over what the problem is, so a solution can’t be identified, and without agreement on the problem or a defined solution, you won’t know when the problem has been solved. Different groups of stakeholders understand the problem differently; any proposed solutions can’t be tested or evaluated other than subjectively.


But a silent problem is different, and Rodney Johnson (RJ) defines it like this:

A problem that is being avoided, neglected, or going unnoticed… A problem that is intentionally being silenced.

This is perhaps the worst kind of problem of all. At least a wicked problem can be acknowledged and struggled with. But one that you’re not aware of? How are you supposed to deal with that?

Whose problem is it?

One of the many silent problems RJ uses as case-studies is the sub-prime financial fallout which we’re all too familiar with now – warnings were given, but disregarded.

Question: if someone able to impose a solution had been willing to say ‘here’s a problem’, would it then have become a complex or wicked problem? That is, is it a silent problem only as long as no-one with enough authority to deal with it has spotted it or taken responsibility for it?

If there were warnings, then someone was aware of the problem, so it wasn’t silent for them – but presumably they didn’t have the clout to tackle the issue. A silent problem, then, is a leadership issue: it is a problem that is being ignored by management.

You’re the manager: how do you know if there is a silent problem?

The identification of silent problems is a key leadership skill: a good leader will be constantly looking out for them. RJ offers 7 symptoms and 5 areas where the problems are likely to be lurking. (No, I’m not going to give them away – you’ll need to get hold of the book!)

Without giving away the list, I can tell you that some of the symptoms could be easily missed in the hurry and scurry of actually doing business. This is why a silent problem is a leadership problem: someone needs to be working at enough of a strategic level that they are working ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business – that way they have a chance of spotting the problem.

I’d have liked a bit more on how to find and identify the problems, as this seems to me to be the key to silent problems. And some of the symptom-spotting is going to come down to gut feel that something is wrong – but how does one develop that, other than by experience? (Luckily, RJ provides a few tips on his blog for how C-level executives can use Management by Walking Around to help with this).

The book offers a structure for resolving these problems, and this, together with the case studies, is very thought-provoking (as well as entertaining), but it seems to me that the most important element here is identification of the problem. And that, of course, is the nub: the very thing that makes these silent…

I found two of the types of silent problems he identifies most interesting, one because the problem becomes part of the corporate culture, and the other because the problem is deliberately contained and ignored.

The latter sounds distinctly risky, even potentially verging on the unethical, and the kind of issue likely to cause major problems when it is eventually unearthed, requiring full-on crisis communications and significant business action. The former, in which the problem becomes encapsulated, pearl-like, by layers of corporate culture, I find intriguing. At what point does the problem become embedded in the culture? And it requires a particularly objective viewpoint to be able to see part of the corporate culture as a problem…

Don’t kill the messenger

In the Corporate Eye list of best practices, whistle-blowing is usually related to an ethics issue, but the principles are relevant here too. RJ says “we must encourage and empower those around us who might unearth and identify the silent problems”. These, he points out, could be employees or associates, but could also be clients or customers. And perhaps those outside the organisation – or new hires – are best placed to spot problems, because of the need to have an objective view of the situation.

So: what are you doing today to check for problems – or how are you enabling people to raise the alarm?

RJ seems almost to anthropomorphise problems, referring to them as living, growing, breathing and consuming resources (the latter is almost certainly true!), undisciplined, unruly and disobedient. This, together with the many fascinating examples, makes for a lively read.

It is all too easy to skim this slim volume the first time, but it definitely repays a second reading.

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Catherine Stine

I too, was impressed with RJ’s grasp of the ‘silent problem’ and how he shared it. I too, read it twice as while it feels like a quick read the first time, the second time was when I moved the problem to my soul. I got it…. deeply. In your review, the discussion on corporate culture was brilliant. I have had the opportunity to work in many organizations and businesses and find it difficult to describe their cultures. Culture “is” the organization. Much can be told about what leaders of the entities do and what they don’t do. In most of them the CEO’s were busy doing….. not being or reflecting or looking out beyond the next financial quarter. I believe that CEO’s want to be able to check off the things they have done in a day. However this cannot be their only role. They have to be out there …looking into the future and really looking at their own organizations. Without Warning does just that—it gives leaders (at all levels) the permission to lead, the tools and language to lead and the insights on silent problems to BE leaders.

Catherine – I’m glad you ‘got’ the issue as well. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how sometimes it takes a couple of reads for something to reveal itself?

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