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The Titanic Syndrome

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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