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Posted: June 04, 2014

Make it so?

Just saying it doesn't mean it'll happen

Todd Ordal

“Ordering a man to write a poem is like commanding a pregnant woman to give birth to a red-headed child.”

—Carl Sandburg

Former Veterans Affairs chief Eric Shinseki is the whipping boy for the public issue of veterans waiting too long for health care. I believe he’s a very honorable man and a great American but am not writing to defend him.

I’m quite sure that the problems in the VA were prevalent before Shinseki took the job. However, as an executive, you have to own the problems. And sometimes you may not have caused them, but you didn’t fix them fast enough.

What interested me about this debacle when it first became public was the target that all patients be seen within 14 days of requesting an appointment. As we now know, VA employees figured out how to game the system with secret paper wait lists not entered into the system and switching off audit control functions in the software. Give them an A for creativity.  Senior management also gets an A, but unfortunately for naivety.

As this case points out, you can no more issue edicts from mahogany row and get good results than you can command a pregnant woman to give birth to a redhead. “Make it so,” as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise, used to say on Star Trek. Doesn’t really mean it’s going to happen.

There’s natural tension between performance and ethics. Push too hard on the numbers in a dysfunctional environment and creative things happen. Revenue gets counted in imaginative ways. Customer satisfaction data gets massaged. Orders are shipped with known errors just to be able to book them. (Famously, years ago a Colorado company literally shipped bricks in boxes rather than computer parts to book the revenue and then quickly recalled them. The executives went to jail.)

Setting objectives with no regard for how to meet them and no understanding of the behavioral changes required, the resources needed or the processes necessary is ridiculous. Owners and leaders of organizations have the position authority to demand what they want, but if the operational plans, compensation systems, customer desires, staffing, etc., aren’t thought through, they’ll likely end up with brunettes rather than redheads.

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at,  303-527-0417 or

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Readers Respond

Thanks, Stephen. The pressure to communicate clearly (e.g. "I wonder if..." vs. "please get this done") becomes critical the further up the ladder you go. Imagine your CEO as a 4 star general! "I wonder if we should bomb Moscow?" Cheers Todd By Todd Ordal on 2014 06 04
Todd - great insights. I once worked with a CEO the expected that as soon as he said make it so that it was actually done. He would come up with ideas so fast people were scurrying around in a frenzy. People had a hard time figuring out if he was just thinking out loud or issuing a command. By Stephen Moulton on 2014 06 04
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