Management myths

Conventional wisdom too often turns managers into slave drivers

To be accountable means to be liable to give an account of your actions and their results. It should not mean either accepting a duty to deliver those results, come what may; or always carrying the blame if results fall short. We are all accountable for our actions, but not in the way that is often interpreted. Today’s myths of management accountability are destroying careers and making the workplace into a forced-labor camp.

When things go wrong, the first impulse of many people is to look for a scapegoat. “Who is to blame for this?” they yell. “Heads must roll!”

Even a cursory glance at reality will tell you that heads rarely roll amongst those in senior positions. If any must be sacrificed to pay for the shortfall, it will be some hapless middle manager who wasn’t able to shift the blame elsewhere fast enough.

But what benefit arises from such purges? Do they represent anything save public relations: seeming to take resolute action to buy off criticism, while doing nothing to address the basic causes of the problem?

As Peter Cook once said to Dudley Moore in one of their famous TV sketches: “I believe I have learned all there is to learn from my mistakes. Indeed, I can repeat every one perfectly at the drop of a hat.”

What does accountability entail?

We hear a great deal about holding managers accountable. It is, if you like, the serious and acceptable face of the lust for scapegoats. In the Hamburger Management Game Plan that is in use by so many organizations today, there is no room for subtlety or shades of gray. You either deliver the expected results—however ridiculous those expectations are—or you are “held accountable.”

It’s a neat, satisfying doctrine . . . and almost completely false.

Shouldn’t managers be held accountable for what they do? Isn’t that the essence of what it means to accept a managerial position? Managers are charged to get things done as requested, and must suffer the consequences if they fail.

This, of course, assumes that results flow neatly from actions. So any shortfall can fairly be traced back to some managerial blunder.

In reality, chance accounts for results—good or bad—at least as much as anyone’s effort—usually more. Effort is often thwarted by a range of problems from poor strategy to uncooperative colleagues and unexpectedly resourceful competitors. Much genuine hard work goes to waste through chance events and unforeseen changes in circumstances.

True accountability

Accountability did not originally imply either responsibility or blame. It simply meant that the person was liable to give an account of their actions: to explain or defend them in a higher court—whether that meant the top executives, the shareholders, or the court of public opinion.

A game plan that imposes blind demands and punishes people who fail to meet them, for almost any reason, is a tyranny, not a management technique. The steady stream of executives facing charges of insider trading, falsifying accounts, and manipulating returns shows you the levels of desperate action people feel they must use to cope with the demands to be “accountable.”

Accountable managers should be able to give account of their stewardship and be listened to with care. Not only is that a civilized way to behave; it’s the best way to discover the true reasons for events, so that appropriate action can be taken. To be allowed to explain is what you expect for adult professionals. To be blamed without the opportunity to be understood is the kind of punishment inflicted on servants or slaves by tyrannical masters.

Focus on the real cause of your problem

Let’s return to the true meaning of accountability. When things go wrong, make people explain and account for their actions. Give them a chance to defend what they have done, before they are thoughtlessly condemned.

If more organizations were to do that—and do it genuinely, not as a sop to PR, with the verdict already decided—most would discover that the causes for poor results or operational problems have little or nothing to do with the manager in question, or his or her team.

Poor systems, poor strategy, penny pinching, following fads and fashions, inadequate products and—yes—sheer bad luck are the most common causes of what goes wrong in organizations. The punishment of scapegoats simply proves a way to avoid placing the blame where it really lies.

By substituting a set of myths, based on supposed personal accountability for everything, today’s macho management approaches actually prevent organizations from improving what most needs to be improved—their systems and policies.

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Knowing when enough is enough is a precious skill

We live in a society where “fixing” things is the norm. Despite the common saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” people are constantly striving to fix things that either don’t need fixing or are beyond help. People constantly try to “fix” their businesses, their careers, their lives—and especially other people. What is worst of all, they try to deal with the problems caused by one “fix” by adding another.

Let me share a story with you about exactly this problem.

Many centuries ago, a famous teacher lived high in the mountains of China, above a remote and poor village. Important people came to seek his advice, traveling hundreds of miles over barren lands to reach his small cottage.

The villagers were proud of their revered neighbor, so when he became old and found it hard to look after himself, they decided to send him one of the young people of the village as a servant. One after another, all the young men were sent, but each was rejected as too noisy, too clumsy, too stupid, too cheeky, or too lazy. It was a hard blow for their families when they came back to the village. The shame was keenly felt.

Eventually, only one family was left, and they had no sons. Their youngest daughter was unmarried and available, so she it was who had go, with strict instructions that she must, for the sake of the family’s honor and her own, do everything in her power to please the old teacher.

As soon as she arrived, she started sweeping the teacher’s house as vigorously as she knew how. But the teacher coughed and sneezed at all the dust and crossly told her to stop at once.

Next she began to dust and tidy.

“Sit still,” the teacher said. “How can I read—or even think—when you are distracting me like that?”

The frightened girl decided to creep outside and do some work in the teacher’s garden.

She was working away with a will, when the old teacher came outside.

“I see that you have pulled up my lettuce seedlings and ruined one of my favorite peony plants,” he said sadly. “I asked you to be still, my child, but you disobeyed me. I am going to meditate. We will talk about your future when I am finished.”

It seemed that everything the girl had done had displeased her master. She would be sent home in disgrace, her mother would weep, her sisters would refuse to speak to her, and her father would beat her soundly.

Then she had a wonderful idea. She would make her master a cup of tea. Everyone knew he loved tea, so a really nice, fresh cup might persuade him to give her another chance.

In those days, good tea was rare and expensive. Ordinary people couldn’t possibly afford it, so she had never made tea before with expensive leaves and in a good china pot. Still, making tea is, she reasoned, simple enough—and she was fairly sure she knew how to do it properly.

She heated the water and put it in the teapot, then found a box of tea leaves. She had no idea how much of such fine tea to use, but she put three huge spoonfuls into the pot. The old teacher liked tea a lot, so she reasoned that the more tea he had, the more he would enjoy it.

Finally she took a tiny taste . . . and spat it out in horror. The tea was so bitter it made her whole face pucker in disgust. No one could drink that!

Now she really was in a mess. She had spoiled her master’s expensive tea. How on earth could she fix the problem?

She recalled that, when her mother was cooking, she often used spices to hide any bad taste. The family was poor and could not afford to waste anything, so meals often had to be made from food that was well past its best. That must be the answer. Something had to be added to fix the taste of the tea.

So the girl added first salt to the tea, then ginger, nutmeg, coriander, turmeric . . . and every other spice she could find, even a clove of garlic. Nothing would fix the problem. Each time she tasted it, it tasted even worse.

When the old teacher came back into the cottage, he found his new servant crying her eyes out, surrounded by every spice and flavoring box from his kitchen.

Stammering and ashamed, she told him what she had done, holding out a cup of the most revolting brew for his inspection.

“Throw it away.” the teacher said.

“But it is expensive and I have worked so hard to try to please you,” the girl wailed.

“Throw it away,” said the teacher. “It was trying to fix the original problem that made it so much worse. It is usually better to start afresh when things go wrong.”

The girl did as she was bid, and the teacher told her to heat fresh water, warm the teapot, and put in fresh tea.

When he saw how much tea she was about to put in the pot, he laughed.

“A quarter of that amount will be enough,” he told her. “Now taste it.”

The girl still pulled a face. “I have never tasted good tea before, master,” she said. “To me, this tastes bitter, but it is certainly far better than my last attempt. I believe that you should drink it like this. I don’t think anything else is needed.”

“You are an intelligent young woman,” the teacher said to her, taking a cup of the tea she had made. “And you have already shown that you are eager to please. Sit down, my child. We will rest and enjoy this tea together. You may add a little honey to sweeten your cup, if you wish.”

So the girl stayed and served the old teacher for the rest of his long, long life.

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Before deferring to authority, start trusting your reason and common sense

What The Buddha said more than 2500 years ago is still worth hearing. Authority—a.k.a. “the experts”—may have no better answers to problems than you can find for yourself.

It’s fascinating how what goes around, comes around.

The Buddha counseled people against putting their trust in expert authority—including himself.

Today’s Management Issues reports on a study that shows that the ability of experts to predict outcomes in tough situations is little better than guesswork.

A study about predicting the outcome of actual conflicts has found that the forecasts of experts who use their unaided judgment are actually little better than those of novices or random guesswork. [. . .] What they found was that the experts — conflict, domain and forecasting specialists — correctly forecasted the decisions made by the various parties in only a third (32 per cent) of the cases. That’s barely better than the strike-rate of the undergraduates, who got it right 29 per cent of the time. Just using random guesswork would deliver the right outcomes 28 per cent of the time.

To be fair, the study used “unaided judgment” as its basis. Experts sometimes have access to sources of information that are not open to ordinary people and which might help them do better.

However, the point remains that using your own common sense looks to be just about as good a guide to tough decisions as the judgment of experts.

Kesten Green said that the research has serious consequences for foreign policy and business: “Forecasting problems such as this are the stuff of not only international relations but also of takeover battles, commercial competition, and labor-management disputes. In most cases, experts use their judgment to predict what will happen. How good are their forecasts? The short answer is that they are of little value in terms of accuracy. In addition, they lead people into false confidence.”

In a crisis? Ignore the experts by Management Issues.

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Taking the wrong approach to corporate needs

I work with a large variety of CEOs, senior managers and key employees. If I ask about the needs and issues within the company, I almost always get the same response: ”We need more communication.”

My reaction to that is that it is simply, WRONG!

Companies don’t need more communication. They need more clarity.

  • Clarity of the vision of the company.
  • Clarity of where the company is going (long term and short term).
  • Clarity of HOW the company will get there.
  • Clarity of individual roles and how those roles create value toward the vision.
  • Clarity of how roles must intertwine in order to achieve extraordinary results.
  • Clarity of how the company will hold itself and each individual accountable.

Think about a great basketball team. When things run smoothly within a team they find that less communication is needed, not more. When the team is really “in the zone” and everything is going perfectly, what is the coach doing? Very little! He’s not yelling, or sending in new plays, or screaming at the assistant coaches. He’s letting the team perform at its peak level . . . because of their clarity of purpose.

The point is, when managers and employees have clarity of where they are going and how to get there they need less communication, not more.

Great teams don’t usually talk in paragraphs or even sentences to communicate. They are so in-tune with one another they talk in just few words and eye-contact. They have so much clarity of purpose among them that they require less communication, not more.

The next time someone in your company pushes for more communication, remember, “Don’t strive for more communication. Strive for more clarity!”

David Woods, CEO/Partner Giant Partners and Giant Impact, leads a team of internationally-known strategists and leadership experts helping companies throughout the world build strategic plans to create strong sustainable growth. David is an expert in strategic thinking. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and universities. You can find his other articles at:

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The worst kind of management obsolescence occurs in the mind

People tend to stick with the beliefs they were brought up with—at least until they’re forced to change. That’s why much of workplace culture has hardly been affected by the changed notions coming from the academic world and elsewhere; and why we’re paying the price for leaders still peddling out-of-touch attitudes to work. Is the only answer to wait until the last Baby Boomer quits?

The people in charge in most organizations today are part of the Baby Boomer generation, brought up by parents born before World War II, and trained in schools and universities during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

These people saw the attempted social changes of the 1960s wither and die, replaced by a return to an extreme form of social conservatism, whose espoused values can mostly be translated into property value, shareholder value, and investment value. Their few remaining ideals suffered a fatal blow from the Vietnam War and they settled down to believe in the natural order of free-market capitalism: that a few must lead and make decisions, while the majority are led and have their decisions made for them.

Recognizing that leading was going to be the better option, most have pursued a steady path of personal advancement—eventually reaching levels where they have indeed became the leaders.

Command-and-control as a natural law

Brought up on ideas of natural dominance and hierarchy, many of today’s senior leaders still see no reason to change this viewpoint. While they may engage in a little cosmetic softening on the outside—they are not immune to the benefits of good PR—nothing has changed within their heads. Their mental attitudes are still those formed 30 or 40 years ago.

While the world has been transformed, what we are seeing today is the steady application of old-fashioned command-and-control management to problems inconceivable 30 or more years ago.

Take the rumbling concern about executive salaries. New methods have been found to enrich a favored few. If those in charge seize on them without scruples, this is not simply greed. In the minds of the immediate post-war generation ruling today’s boardrooms, it’s entirely fair that those who have risen to the top should take most of the rewards. Who better deserves them? Their parents lived in a world where individual merit was of small importance in promotions. Pre-War, family ties, social standing, and seniority (based on years of service) were the basis for rising up the hierarchy. The Baby Boomers saw that swept away and adjusted their mental viewpoints accordingly. Their generation invented merit-based pay and has benefited from it handsomely. Why should they give it up?

The current turmoil in the stockmarket is another example. Baby Boomers lived through the post-War experiments in social democracy and government intervention in people’s lives. Most of these forms of social engineering were judged to have failed, to be replaced by doctrinaire free-market viewpoints. Of course, now that the free market is wetting its collective knickers because the resulting greed and lack of regulation have caused horrendous problems, government is expected to return to social engineering and step in to rescue them. The Baby Boomers have learned well the belief that government should keep out of their hair when things are going well and provide a safety-net when they aren’t. Success (and its rewards) is down to individuals, coping with failure (and its costs) is up to society as a whole.

Paying the price of macho attitudes

Nothing in this world lasts for ever; nothing comes without a price. The price of decades of rampant individualism , extreme free-market economics, financial deregulation, and social conservatism is proving to be a heavy one.

What ordinary people are paying for a macho, “me first” society like ours now includes:

  • The stark alternatives of selling your soul to the organization or being shut out of advancement.
  • Accepting that you can lose your job any day for reasons that are entirely beyond your control; and that you’ll be on your own when you do.
  • Fierce competitiveness that cares little for the weak, the sick, or those down on their luck.
  • Continued racial, gender, and sexual discrimination, justified by appeals to “family values” derived from sentimental myths based on idealized 1950s households.
  • Confusing self-reliance with disregard for the needs of others.
  • Such a blind disregard for environmental issues that politicians still can’t act when the effects of past greed and neglect are finally too obvious for even the most dinosaur-like moron to deny them.
  • A nagging fear of loss of savings and retirement benefits due to the actions of a handful of speculators. (Why don’t many people save? Maybe because they don’t trust the savings will still be there when they need them.)
  • Falling trust in the basics of life, like safe food and safe drugs, because maintaining safety and increasing profit rarely go together.
  • Stress, burnout, and cynical layoffs to drive up “shareholder value.” (Not of much interest if you neither own shares nor have enough of a retirement fund to worry about.)
  • An increasing gap between the rich (who get ever richer) and everyone else. (How is it that thousands of ordinary people losing their jobs is a natural and unavoidable part of global competition, and a handful of hedge funds patronized by the super-rich losing their money is a national and international crisis?)

What happens if people lose faith in the future?

Is this a civilized society? Is this how we want to live in the 21st century? Is this the only option available to us?

There comes a time when every generation is replaced and ideas that once seemed unquestionable truths are thrown into history’s dustbin. The imperialism of the 19th century was swept away by the First Wold War. Optimistic beliefs in the return of rationalism and social progress were fatally wounded by the Depression, then killed by Nazism and Stalinist communism. 1960s belief in the power of love and freedom to change society swiftly dissipated under the pressures of the Vietnam War.

We seem to be at another turning point, linked to another war. Far from embracing the ideas and economic structures developed in the last 50 years, radicalized dissidents are trying to replace them with terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Newly industrialized nations like China want to benefit from our financial structures, but reject our political and social ones.

In the Western world, a new generation of entrants to the workforce are demanding more equitable treatment and greater control over their working lives. In many cases, a career in a large, “blue chip” corporation—the centerpiece of their parent’s vision of a good life—is dismissed as second-rate compared with becoming an entrepreneur and working for yourself.

In Arizona we suffer many flash-floods at this time of year. Monsoon rains cannot be absorbed by parched, thin soils, so they run off into the washes and seasonal rivers, causing sudden floods that rise and disappear in an hour or less.

Sometimes this natural run-off gets blocked. When that happens, pressures build up until the dam of debris is swept away. A raging torrent of water pours down the mountainside, carrying rocks, tree limbs, and even vehicles along with it. In the resulting flood, roads are destroyed, buildings are flattened, and people are killed.

Let us hope that in our generation there can be a peaceful, non-violent change of ideas as Baby Boomers like me finally surrender control. Whether that is what happens really depends on all our choices today. Unless those in charge in our organizations give up their obsolete modes of thinking, they will continue to act as a dam to progress—with sadly predictable results. No organizational structure or mental outlook is proof for long against a violently changing environment.

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Why do we persist in trying to turn ourselves (and other people) into what we and they plainly are not?

Expectations are major sources of stress, especially those that are more or less doomed from the start. Instead of trying to turn yourself into someone else, with totally different abilities, why not focus on becoming better at being who you are?

It isn’t just crazy expectations about results, workloads, time-scales, or cost reductions that cause so much stress today. Almost worse are the expectations that organizations set for people’s abilities—and people set themselves for their own career paths.

Why do we do it? Aren’t there enough strains and problems to be faced, without adding new ones based on expectations that never had a rational basis?

The curse of competency lists

Many organizations have been tempted into trying to define exactly what skills and abilities are needed to make you “competent” in a specific job—then use those lists as the basis for that other grand form of pointless cruelty: the annual performance appraisal.

As so often, it’s an approach based on ideas that seem plausible in theory: those of making performance and hiring decisions more objective. Sadly, ask two people to describe the ideal set of abilities for a job and you’ll get at least three answers—all of them conflicting. Worse, the responses will be expressed in such vague terminology that they can mean almost anything you want them to.

Now bring together a slew of committees to review and reach consensus on the final list and you have the perfect recipe for creating an artificial set of requirements that doesn’t apply to any recognizable job, let alone the one being “defined.”

The resulting demands on actual human beings are enough to create stress in a Zen master. Real, individual skills are ignored in favor of totally artificial patterns.

Running eagles

The next step in the farce is taken by those in charge of training. Armed with the competency lists, plus the fantasies peddled by gurus and consultants, they proceed to attempt to “teach” people how to fit the required patterns.

Eagles are given running lessons and told flying is “not what is required” and “not the mark of a good team-player.” Fish are exhorted to grow legs and take up mountaineering. Lions are told to eat grass and mice are exhorted to become “lean, mean flying machines.”

It would all be funny, if people’s jobs and livelihoods weren’t dependent on appearing to go along with this nonsense.

Self-inflicted misery

Over time, people even come to treat such idiocy as real. They have little choice, since those who rule their working destinies demand it.

Take the example of “leadership skills.” In any logical world, it would be clear that you only need one or two leaders to work with a very large number of people. That’s especially true today, since modern technology makes it easy for a single leader to communicate instantly with scores—even hundreds—of followers. There’s certainly no logical reason for all the layers upon layers of “leaders” present in nearly all organizations.

Why are they there? Because of two myths:

  • The myth that everyone needs to be closely supervised or they’ll slack off and do nothing.
  • The myth that pay should be linked to “added responsibilities” to create a career path.

Neither of these myths is—or ever was—true, but tens of thousands of people’s jobs now depend on them. Indeed, often the only way today to gain consistently higher rewards is by promotion into a “leadership position.”

It is any wonder, therefore, that huge numbers of people—many with no true interest in, or aptitude for, leadership— try to force themselves into displaying some of the fashionable traits of leadership?

The plain truth

We can sum up reality in a few, commonsense statements:

  • Most people have neither the inherent skills nor the real wish to be “leaders” in the true sense. They have many, many other natural strengths, most of which get neglected in the rush to become a leader.
  • The true demand for leaders is a tiny fraction of the number of people and jobs carrying that title. It would be much more rational to find a better way of linking rewards to contribution than inventing spurious management layers.
  • The precise skills and know-how required by any specific job constantly change and are often unpredictable. No list created by a committee is going to cover them. People need to know what they are expected to do, what scope they have to do it without asking permission, and very little else.
  • Jobs are dynamic. They change the person who holds them as those people gain experience. The person doing the job changes it to make it better fit who they are and what they’re good at. Fixing a description at a single time (and often without input from a current job holder) is the proverbial task of nailing jelly to a wall.

A massive amount of needless stress, frustration, and unhappiness—to say nothing of a vast waste of genuine talent—would be saved if we stopped forcing eagles to run and let them do what they’re best at— flying.

So, if you’re an eagle, stick with eagle strengths. If you’re a badger, make digging your career. And don’t let any idiot try to force you into some other path, just because that’s the fashion or the dictat of some committee.

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The perils of seeking success “on the cheap”

Whether it’s financial returns, business profits, or personal achievement, doing it on the cheap is packed with risks. In the last few days, there have been multiple instances of what happens when people try to get what they want on the cheap. Sadly, there’s little sign that anyone is learning from what has been going on. The temptations will always be there, but wiser heads know that what seems too good to be true nearly always is exactly that.

Hedge funds and investment banks had a bonanza in recent years, fueled by cheap credit and the kind of belief in personal invulnerability usually associated with hot-headed teenagers. They not only ignored the risks of what they were doing, they came to believe in some strange way that the risks weren’t even there. You could make vast sums of money by borrowing other peoples’ cash and speculating with it. It was the primrose path: financial success on the cheap.

One of the nation’s largest toy-makers also appears to have believed that they could make big profits without it costing them anything like what it should have done, by outsourcing all the production to China, doubtless driving a hard bargain even there. Now they have discovered lead in the paint and other hazards, and the withdrawals will cost them millions and a large slice of their reputation. There’s nothing inherently wrong in buying products from overseas, but did it never occur to them to spend a little more money on constant testing and quality control? I guess not, given the number of toys being recalled.

We seem to be suffering a whole business culture constructed on the notion that you can produce constantly escalating profits and build mighty organizations on the cheap. All that matters is the bottom line. Never mind paying ordinary people good salaries; just reward the few at the top. Forget about providing a route to adequate pensions or health care; that costs too much. Forget about giving consumers quality or a pleasant buying experience; pile it higher and higher and sell it cheaper than the next guy. But don’t cut your profits. Keep them high by cutting everything else: staffing, quality, systems, standards. Business on the cheap.

What’s the deal?

An article by Charles H. Green in The Huffington Post caught my eye. It’s called We’ve All Caught the Detroit Disease and refers specifically to the woes of the US automakers, but sums up the attitudes of management on the cheap perfectly:

The truth is, Detroit had and still has an American disease. It has a few key symptoms:
  • Belief that we are the biggest, standalone market, immune from global competition, and that the Big 3 [General Motors, Ford, Chrysler] had dominant market share.
  • Belief that GDP growth drives auto sales, that growth means growth in market share, and that buyers are price-driven.
  • Belief that, in the immortal words of Lee Iacocca, brought back a few years ago from the taxidermist to re-appear on TV, “the most important thing is the deal!”

That last point is crucial: belief in “the deal” as the basis of everything.

If everything comes down to “the deal,” there is no place for humanity, ethics, foresight, or even commonsense. Life and work are reduced to simple financial transactions, with an underlying assumption that the best deal is the one that gives you the most in return for the least: the foundation stone of Hamburger Management in all its current manifestations. Never mind the quality, or the value. Look how cheap it is.

In a society based on “the deal,” every transaction becomes competitive, since the deal is there to keep the score. If people complain that politics has become polarized, you can see why. Who wins in “the deal” that has to be made to get any legislation passed? Who comes out best in terms of spending allocated to pet projects?

In business, relationships also become deals: an exchange of favors and influence, with the winner being the one who gets most and gives away least in return. Buying and selling are deals too: how little can I, the seller, give you for your money; how little can you, the buyer, pay to get what you want. Even consumers caught the disease, leading to the spectacualr growth of discount, big-box stores. Low prices are everything, we are told. All consumers are fundamentally price-driven. Utter drivel!

As a result, in life and at work, many people want to do deals with reality, trying to get as much as they can with the least input. Never mind what career might be best suited to your talents; go for the work that will allow you to earn most fastest. Don’t wait for anything; buy now, borrow the money, and worry about paying it back sometime—maybe never, if you can go on borrowing and borrowing. When the loans run out, as they are doing now, life suddenly turns very bad for the most vulnerable and those who made a fortune lending to them.

Undoing the mess

Charles Green sums up the effect that the cult of “the deal” has had on the automakers like this:

The Japanese in particular always believed it was a global market, far bigger than the US, and that they, including Toyota, were small players on a global stage. For them it was always about growth, not share. And for them, price was not something you jacked up with leader models and white-walls and radios, it was something you set low, for growth, and built in all the quality you could, until you earned the right to sell at higher price points. It was not “the deal” — it was, profoundly, the relationship. They were—oh, what’s the word?—right.

What has being constructed in recent decades is a culture based on the belief that whatever you want can be had at half of yesterday’s price (and one third of its quality) so you can get still more things to replace those that have already failed or proved worthless. Quantity rules. Quality is old-hat. Life success is measured in dollars and shoes, not in happiness or satisfaction or the value you have brought to this life on earth.

Stop the world. Some of us want to get off here.

How can we undo the mess? First we have to reverse the attitude that you can get a good life on the cheap: that it’s laudable to cut corners, live off credit with no chance of repaying it, walk away from obligations when they have served your purpose, and treat relationships with others as “deals” you can “win” by short-changing them. “No money down” isn’t free. The bill will turn up sooner or later—often at the time when it’s least possible for you to meet it.

Live now and pay tomorrow still means paying. Short-termism is what the word says: looking at the short-term and ignoring the longer-term consequences until they come crashing down on you. Just ask those poor folk, persuaded by wonderful “deals” to take out mortgages they couldn’t afford; the ones who are now facing foreclosure and loss of everything. Were the short-term benefits worth the pain they’re facing today and will continue to face into the future?

Reality doesn’t do deals with you or me or anyone else. It is what it is, and real, lasting success takes what it takes. No discounts. No easy credit terms. And reality’s bills always, always have to be paid in full. You can’t declare bankruptcy and walk away from what you owe it.

We would all do well to remember that.

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Change rarely happens in the way conventional ideas suggest, individually or organizationally.

Despite all the pontificating that goes on about change and change management, the conventional image of how change works is badly flawed. If you want to make real changes—ones that stick—it’s time for a newer, more rational way to understand how change works.

The conventional view of change in the workplace pits a new, usually fragile idea for change against powerful forces totally committed to the status quo. Those pushing for change are, typically, a minority of individuals outside the ruling elite. They may have a compelling vision (at least in their eyes), but those opposing them have all the power.

This is why so many people give up on change. The contest appears so one-sided as to be hopeless from the start. “That’s a great idea,” they think. “It would be wonderful to see it happen, but there’s no way I could ever get it past the people in charge.”

In personal matters, too, change is pitted against entrenched forces of habit and apathy. People want to act differently, but they lose heart early on, discouraged by what seems to be an impossible task. It feels easier to resign yourself to the status quo than to take on something that is almost bound to fail.

But do you need permission?

This conventional picture assumes that change cannot happen without either gaining permission from those most likely to dislike the whole idea, or sweeping them away forcibly. It’s a view with conflict built into it; conflict that can only be ended by the surrender or destruction of one of the sides.

What’s missing is any idea that change might prevail because people have changed their minds. That no permission will be needed because those who were in opposition have decided to join the group in favor of change.

When you consider historical changes, far more have come about in that way than by either violent revolution, or the willingness of those holding power to allow change to take place as a deliberate course of action.

The unstoppable power of a united movement

Organizational change usually happens via a quite different route: the route of a movement with a specific end in view. It works like this:

  • One or more individuals reach the view that change is needed.
  • They discover like-minded people and start to group together for support in thinking their ideas through.
  • As more and more people get involved, it becomes natural to want to translate these ideas into action. A pressure group is formed.
  • The pressure group publicizes its views widely. If those ideas are taken up, they start to become accepted as obvious and natural.
  • Those committed to the status quo feel out-of-step with the majority. Far from being the ones with all the power, they now face an increasing sense of dissonance and vulnerability.
  • To regain their former feelings of security and strength, those in charge shift their position to align with the majority. The change has become the new norm.

You can already see how attitudes on global warming, for example, are shifting as the ruling elite move from denying it, to opposing any change, to getting on the band-wagon.

A pattern for individual changes

At the individual level, a similar process happens:

  • Someone gets caught up in an idea and finds others who already share it or can be persuaded to do so.
  • Together, these people reinforce one another’s attachment to the idea and provide mutual support.
  • The individual’s current lifestyle starts to feel increasingly out of alignment with the ideas that are current in the group.
  • To lessen the dissonance, that individual starts to make significant lifestyle changes. When these are approved by the group, they are reinforced.
  • In time, the changed lifestyle becomes the norm.

The power of shared ideas

What is driving change in both these situations—individual and organizational—is the power of shared ideas. Unlike direct demands for specific change, which can usually be beaten down by the use of power, ideas slip around the barriers.

At the start, they seem too weak to be worth trying to squash. Later, they take such a hold on people’s minds that it becomes impossible to drive them out. They even spread in secret, if overt opposition is too dictatorial to allow them free expression.

How can you crush an idea? How can you force people not to think it or pass it to others? How can you stop it spreading, even if you have all the means of institutional power at your disposal?

Nothing is quite as powerful as an idea whose time has come. For individuals too, the power of an idea that seizes your mind is almost unstoppable. It can change your life in a moment, even altering habits that you may have struggled with for years.

The message is clear: to make real organizational change you first need an idea that can grip enough people to start a movement. In your own life, you need an idea powerful enough to seize your mind, plus a support group who come to share that idea. Once that has happened, it is just a matter of waiting while enough momentum builds up to make the current ruling elite (or your existing habits) experience such unsettling dissonance that they have to change to resolve it.

That’s how change works best. Of course, it takes time . . . but nothing worthwhile ever really happened in a flash, whatever people tell you.

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Why future generations will smile at our foolishness.

Each generation sees the myths and beliefs of earlier generations as comic and childish. Today, we can’t see how the Ancient Greeks ever believed in such obviously human-like gods as Zeus or Apollo, with their feuds, love affairs, and petty jealousies. The beliefs of medieval alchemists seem amazingly silly. Victorian assumptions of the white man’s inherent superiority would be totally laughable, were it not for the sinister use made of them later—and the fact that some misguided people still hold to such nonsense even today.

What are today’s mythologies: the ones that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will smile over and dismiss as too laughable and primitive to be worth more than historical notice?

One that I would put into that category is our cult of the successful (or successfully self-promoting) business leader: the belief that those in charge of successful businesses are somehow endowed with rare wisdom and insight, far beyond the capabilities of ordinary people.

Isn’t it odd that, when things are going well, such people happily accept as much of the credit as possible; but when problems arise, they claim that it all happened without their knowledge?

How is it that organizations can spend millions on salary and share-options packages to attract and retain star executives; yet later accept their assurances that any scandals and ethical lapses were outside their control? Which position is correct: the leader as hero, single-handedly reversing the fortunes of some ailing business; or the leader as frail human being, doing his or her best in situations too complex for any one person to correct?

Let’s all agree that the hero leader is a myth, like tales of Sir Galahad or Robin Hood. Given the size of today’s large organizations, no single person can control more than a tiny fraction of their functioning, however long the hours that they work. It’s impossible for top executives even to know much of what is happening all the time, let alone control it.

Are CEOs mostly actors?

The majority of leaders spend more time in posturing, playing politics, and polishing their public images than in affecting the actual course of the business, which runs along quite smoothly without their input. Most of the time they are actors, speaking lines put into their mouths by speech-writers and PR people; putting their names to reports and documents that others have prepared for them; acting as the pubic face of whatever ruling clique is currently in charge of the running of the business.

Only occasionally are they called upon to make a real decision. That’s how it seems, but even then, most of the decisions that bear their name are agreed quietly beforehand by those who are really in charge. That isn’t to say that the request made to a CEO—or even to the Board—doesn’t look like a decision. There are many techniques for presenting things in such a way that the decision you want is the only possible one for a committee, or an individual, to make. Indeed, no wise manager ever allows a matter to reach decision stage without being 100% certain that it will go the way he wants: the way he or she has slanted the presentation, adjusted the data, manipulated the figures, and chosen the “rival” options. The executives at the top can be relied upon to be so busy, so remote from any of the detail, and so eager to show their decisiveness that few, if any, ever question the information placed before them in any more than a superficial way.

Why the leadership cult?

Why do we have this cult of leadership? Why are scores of books published each year, thousands of training courses and seminars attended, and reams of newsprint devoted to this skill, this vague concept, this largely mythological entity known as leadership?

In part, I believe, because we all recognize, deep down, that we cannot control our organizations or our working lives. It’s this lack of real control that makes us so desperate to find something or someone that we just hope might improve our ability to influence events. We want to be in control; we think we ought to be in control—or we believe someone should be—and so we place that duty on someone and hope it might be true.

There’s also the human tendency to want a scapegoat when things go wrong. Whom can I blame? Whom, in the USA especially, can I sue? If someone is to be blamed, that person must have been in control—or ought to have been, if they were not. Look at how regularly CEOs are removed when things go wrong, even though they probably had little to do with it.

Our mythology of the hero-leader, working 70 hour weeks with his or her hands on all the levers of the organizational machine, is so much fanciful nonsense. Trying to achieve such a picture is killing people—quite literally. It’s all for nothing too.

So what should leaders do?

Truly successful leaders don’t even try to control events. They recognize that the only way to direct a large group of people is through some ruling idea. That’s what they supply: a vision to believe in; a set of ideas to guide the thousands of individual decisions being made every day without any direct input from them.

“Without a vision, the people perish.” These biblical words sum it up. What we should be doing is seeking out leaders with imagination: people who can think and produce fresh visions for others to follow. Naturally, such people will need time and space to do their thinking. You can’t expect anyone to come up with strong strategic viewpoints if their days are filled with pointless meetings and administrative trivia. Nor if they’re exhausted by crippling work schedules and constant traveling.

Choosing leaders from those who get to the top by competitive guile and ruthlessness won’t work . That’s responsible for today’s cadre of self-promoting windbags in corporate boardrooms. Nor will the myth of leader as “man of action” serve our needs. Thought without action has long been the stock-in-trade of academic ivory towers, but action without thought—the hallmark of the current crop of macho managers—is far worse. Plenty of people can take action, but it requires someone (or some team) with real wisdom and insight to guide that action wisely.

Let’s drop the mythology, forget the Hollywood version of corporate leadership, and start allowing people of wisdom and understanding to fill top positions. Then give them the time to do what they are there for—think.

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