“If you don’t change your direction, you may end up where you are heading.” — Lao Tzu

Third rails are used to provide electric traction power in some train systems. Useful as they may be, these rails present an electrocution hazard and can cause death if touched.

Have you noticed that there are also third rails running through many organizations?  There are boundaries with such perceived danger that no one will cross those lines. If a policy or way of doing things is so powerful that it is unquestionable, it can prevent an organization from changing course even when a new direction is necessary.

Some organizational third rails are unspoken. For example, I was asked to help an organization where all the projects finished late to their schedules. I asked the group of 20 senior managers if it was okay to build a plan where a team could finish early. The whole group looked startled until one person stood up with a shaking voice, “It depends on how early!”  Even though they wanted more predictable schedules, it was scary for them to make their schedules realistic.

In other organizations, I have seen people struggle with tools that were not providing the value they needed. The tool was originally useful but had become less so as the business changed.  When I asked about alternative tools, I received looks of fear and quick changes of the subject. The tool was a third rail that everyone knew not to touch!

Third rails are powerful forces in organizations, just like they are for trains. They have often been useful sources of power until the organization experiences the need for a change.

The good news about organizational third rails is that they are just a metaphor. When you actually grab onto them and deal with them, they lose their power.  In both examples I provided, I helped the leaders grab the third rails, drain them of their power, and get better results for the organization.

Does your organization have any third rails that are running invisible trains?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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