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The Titanic Syndrome

July 21, 2009 Leave a comment

The wealth of material in books, journals, and our tribal memory addressing change as a topic in one form or another is overwhelming. This accumulated lore has surely been building since the dawn of mankind, and includes the scholarly, the populist and the futuristic. Unfortunately, if current business news is to be believed, this body of knowledge contributes little to organizational survival.

Most managers are constantly preoccupied by change, reacting to threats and opportunities, and initiating activities based on their beliefs and aspirations. They design their organizations to ‘tame’ change, and they train their employees to ‘manage’ it. Indeed the literature is replete with authors who see this mastery of change as critical to the survival of the modern company.

Unfortunately, if current news sources are to be believed, organizations have not made a very good job of it. So if our capability to successfully address organizational change is at least adequate, why are things so bad? I believe the answer lies with what I have called for many years the ‘Titanic Syndrome’ – once the entrepreneurial business cruise is over, managers simply don’t believe their particular Titanic is sinkable.

Like the officers of the Titanic, managers don’t see any need to slow their ship down when warned of looming business icebergs. When the inevitable happens, they seek to create the illusion of progress through ‘change management’. This is almost invariably an exercise in ‘learning to do things right’ rather than ‘learning to do the right things” – even as the business is sinking the emphasis is on the best way to re-arrange the deckchairs.

The dilemma is that the managers responsible for the disaster are the same managers who are notoriously disinterested in objectively examining their own mindsets, and the part they played in the creation of the problem. I agree with the host of authorities who claim that change-related problems cannot be addressed by managers whose mental models obscure and/or contribute to the problems. All of an organization’s competitive strategies come to nothing if its managers’ business paradigm is not appropriate. When managers fall victim to the ‘Titanic Syndrome’ believing their ship to be ‘Unsinkable’, it will make perfect sense to agonize over where the deckchairs should be stacked. As Kuhn said “Learning within an existing paradigm is puzzle-solving”.

In spite of the vast sums spent on management development, management thinking is still mired in industrial age thinking. Because of this, managers easily succumb to the ‘Titanic Syndrome’. Predictability is still the basis on which most organizations are run, and managers in general view the world as a big piece of clockwork. How then can we break free of the paradox that “The greater the corporate success the stronger grow the seeds of future corporate failure”? What then are we to do? Abandon ship and lose everything or ‘right quick’ come up with a new plan? But what plan? The answer lies in keeping management mindsets from hardening by changing activities and tools so that new habits of thinking and learning are developed naturally and continuously as individuals do their jobs.

In my experience this tall order can indeed be achieved by deliberately re-designing and re-developing the systemic organizational structure, processes, roles and tools to specifically develop an environment where learning will be essential to successfully carrying out the work of any employee. By changing the rules, all employees including managers are forced to change their habits of thinking and learning without necessarily being made aware that this is happening. In this way seventy-five percent of the community will be learning rather than just the fifteen percent natural learners. Indeed, since the emphasis may be placed on performance, driven by business outcomes, the whole organization will concentrate its energies towards its own continuing business viability.

If you would like to explore these concepts further or learn more about the real life work on which they are based please contact me – I’ll be delighted to dialogue with you.

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Dancing with the Gorilla!

July 4, 2009 Leave a comment

Once upon a time the pace of change was slow enough that we could adapt either by making small adjustments or by passing our insights on to the next generation. Today the pace of technological and social change accelerates almost continuously, and the necessary adjustments are so large as to lead us to talk about the “management of discontinuities” and our insights are often out of date as soon as we formulate them.

Our environment has become so large, interconnected, complex and unpredictable that the only kind of stability we can find is dynamic – like a boat in a storm. Each day brings more surprises and we ponder “What in the world is happening to the world?” Our answer to this question shapes our individual world view that in turn shapes just about everything we do – so let’s explore a couple of world views ….. Enter the Gorilla of change that your organization is partnered to dance with whether you like it or not! Wake Up!! The trampling has commenced ….

The gorilla represents contextual change that can cause anything from minimal organizational discomfort to deathly executive fear – simple transition or absolute chaos. In the past the gorillas you and your organization danced with came from zoos, and were docile old things that gave you a very few surprises if any. They had names like unrest, confusion, transition, competition and the like. Your organization knew all the moves and steps and the dance went quite smoothly.

Suddenly the supply of tame gorillas dried up and all the new gorillas you partner with now have just come from the jungle. These gorillas are wild and unpredictable, and have names like ambiguity, disorder, complexity, and chaos – even dare we say it “global crisis”! Now, there are two ways you and your organization can dance today with these gorillas (1) the old way where you imposed the steps, or (2) a new way in which you learn to let the steps emerge.

Let’s review these two world views ….

1.    You impose the steps and you:

  • see the future as an extension of the past and the steps are laid out
  • strive for routine and predictability emphasizing efficiency (“doing it right”) over effectiveness (“doing the right thing”)
  • fall victim to the “It has always worked” syndrome
  • develop an organization that learns the steps from its own old manuals
  • suffer under the curse of the paradigm so that the dance ends catastrophically. A paradigm is mental model of the world. It is useful for aligning the thinking and effort of all organizational members but over time it becomes a restrictive communal mindset where challenge to the status quo is unthinkable – be prepared to be trampled!!

2.    You let the steps emerge and you:

  • “Go with the flow” … the dance is a complex system and you leverage the “exploitation/exploration” tension to your advantage
  • embrace entrepreneurship and innovation, striving for continuous renewal
  • strive for both effectiveness and efficiency
  • are agile and leverage the knowledge in your human capital
  • avoid the curse of the paradigm by ensuring freedom at all organizational levels to make decisions based on a culture of high autonomy – high alignment
  • promote social networks and social networking
  • are sensitive to what your organization’s “opinion leaders” are counseling

It turns out that dancing with your gorilla using style #2 fits very well with newly emerging theories that involve social networks, chaordics, and complex adaptive systems, to name just a few tempos. Indeed many current authoritative judges of gorilla dancing think you will have a sound future in competitive gorilla dancing if you adopt this style … ah, but how to begin without being trampled? Why not give me a call? I’d be delighted to introduce you to some great gorilla-dancing coaches ….