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Saturday, November 25, 2020

The "Tried and True" Addiction

Leaders who become addicted to “tried and true” organizational or business methods ignore the reality that change is constant and can go a long way in the course of one working life. The first solid step into the future is always to let go of the past. Business is not a matter of unchanging laws that must be followed without question. It never has been. It’s time to slow down and realize the importance of accepting and welcoming change.

Many leaders, in business and elsewhere, have addictions. Some are addicted to power, some to status, others to money or political influence, or taking risks. A few become addicted to good works and the public esteem that they can bring. Many are addicted to speed and excitement: the rush that they get when there’s a crisis to be solved and everyone—at least in their own minds—turns to them as the savior of the moment. Addiction of one type or another is easy to fall into when you sit in a position of power. And addiction can quickly come to dominate your thoughts and decisions.

One problem with all addictions is a variant on the law of diminishing returns. The actions or events that once brought satisfaction start to become commonplace. They no longer deliver the same “hit.” You need continually to “up the ante:” to move to more and more extreme versions of behaviors that used to be sufficient. Those addicted to power can never get enough, and are swiftly turned into autocrats who demand involvement in everything. The status-addicted become pompous fools, continually showing off their badges of office. Those who are speed or risk addicted fling themselves into ever more dangerous situations, until the inevitable pile-up destroys them.

Our tried and true game plans are never safe or permanent. We just like to believe that they are.
And then there are the many, many leaders who become addicted to their own, “tried and true” game plan for success. Maybe it has worked for them, perhaps several times, in the past. Quite likely, it has—or had, once—much to recommend it. It was practical, built on commonsense and well-established ways of thinking. It felt safe. But our tried and true game plans are never safe or permanent. We just like to believe that they are.

Times change. Contexts alter and shift into fresh patterns. Like the weather, the only thing that is unchanging about the environment in which organizations move is that it is inconstant. Some changes are small; many are large enough to shift our world around into entirely unexpected patterns. And what was once tried and true, and a pattern for assured success, becomes a liability: a comfort blanket we should have left behind in childhood, yet are still clinging to as mature adults, while “feeling safe” demands becoming ever more conservative in outlook, like the risk taker who must take bigger and bigger risks to get the same thrill.

Many of the automatic responses of today’s leaders come from supposed tried and true business methods. Like all folk wisdom, its origins are lost somewhere in the past, and it has been repeated and repeated until it has been encapsulated into sayings everyone knows—and some still treat as the epitome of wisdom. It has lost any links to the time when, once, it was current and relevant, and swims instead into a future where it has no place.

Try stopping sometime and linking some piece of management lore back to its true place in history. Take an idea like motivating people by setting them “stretch” objectives, and imagine the situation where the idea was first considered and adopted. A company full of people maybe just emerging from the days when work meant doing exactly what you were told and doing it every day, in detail and without fail. The days when advanced technology was just becoming more widely available, and it was clear that most people were wary about grasping the untried opportunities it offered—and even fewer understood what might be possible. To the time when what mattered most was to encourage people to try.

Instead of large numbers of staff with untapped abilities and time on their hands, we have burnout and excessive work demands. Do you still need to “tempt” people into trying new things? Will offering—or, more likely, demanding—that they meet objectives that presently lie out of reach still motivate and challenge them?
Now fast forward to today. How much of that environment remains? People take high tech solutions as a given and the opportunities it can offer as commonplace. We have experienced decades of change from a time when “good” employees simply followed set procedures and written instructions without deviation. The majority of organizations have cut staff to the minimum; and those few that remain are struggling to keep up with basic demands. Instead of large numbers of staff with untapped abilities and time on their hands, we have burnout and excessive work demands. Do you still need to “tempt” people into trying new things? Will offering—or, more likely, demanding—that they meet objectives that presently lie out of reach still motivate and challenge them? Or will it feel like the straw that is in danger of breaking the camel’s back?

Look back, say, twenty years, and try to chart the amount of change that has taken place in your own industry since then. Is it likely that methods and ways of thinking that were tried and true two decades ago will still apply? America is, oddly enough for a nation built on unfettered growth and the dreams of millions, an extremely conservative place, both socially and intellectually. The Far East, and even Europe, are more progressive. Where once immigrants accepted that they might fulfill their wildest dreams, the prevailing culture has become tied to preserving ideas and ways of life associated more with the past than the future. Perhaps it is always thus. Those who are wildest and most radical in their youth become some of the most extreme reactionaries in middle age.

Maybe that is why so many business leaders stay attached to the notion that there are eternal, tried and true ways of running an organization. They too were once fiery young managers, filled with zeal and ambition. Now they have made it to the top—to corporate middle and old age—and the swing to becoming conservative and reactionary is in full flow. Sadly, reality pays no heed to such human foibles. For our world, change is always as swift, unpredictable, and filled with sudden leaps into the unknown as the dreams of the most ardent and revolutionary youth. It is also quite as ruthless in sweeping away whatever went before. You keep up, or you are thrown into the garbage. It’s your choice.

Buddhists teach that clinging to the idea of permanence is the cause of most of our human suffering. They could well be right. The first solid step into the future is always to let go of the past. Business is not a matter of unchanging laws that must be followed without question. It never has been. Only in our imaginations is the universe a predictable place.



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