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When should managers insert themselves into a messy situation

Bob Sutton’s Work Matters Blog continues to be one of my best sources of managerial insight. One of the challenges of managing is choosing whether and when to intervene in your organization (presuming that micro-management is not your goal). In this recent excellent post, Sutton offers the distinction between two classic acronyms as an excellent diagnostic question to help make that choice:

FUBAR, SNAFU, Fast Company, and Good Bosses – Bob Sutton:

Snafu — situation normal, all fucked-up

fubar — fucked-up beyond all recognition

One CEO I know, also the son of a World War II veteran, uses the distinction between the two to help decide whether a “mess” requires intervention, or it is best to leave people alone for awhile to let them work through it.

He asks his team, or the group  muddling through mess: “Is it a snafu or fubar situation? ” He finds this to be a useful diagnostic question because, if it is just usual normal level confusion, error, and angst that is endemic to uncertain and creative work, then it is best to leave people alone and let hem muddle forward.  But if it is fubar, so fucked-up that real incompetence is doing real damage, the group is completely frozen by fear, good people are leaving or suffering deeply, customers are fleeing, or enduring damage is being done to a company or brand — then it is time to intervene.

This is a really nice way to assess both a messy situation and the strength and skill of your management tea. I’m adding it to my repertoire.