The Management Conundrum

Why companies get stuck in business as usual management

My fondest times from childhood were playing with Legos. While I had some of the early City and Space sets, I preferred going off the script and building my own things. My pièce de résistance was a model of the Battlestar Galactica from the sci-fi 70’s TV show.

The Legos are stored in an attic, forgotten when I left for school. But the imagination that came from an afternoon with tiny bricks was never forgotten. Which is why in 2003 it was surprising to hear that Lego as a company was teetering on the edges of corporate death.

The turnaround story at LEGO is one of the greatest in corporate history. Before 2003, most of the innovation efforts were flops. Post 2003, LEGO streamlined, rediscovered its roots, and focused on the experience of their customers.

There are many reasons why LEGO went astray, covered in an excellent book on the subject. When you peel back each reason, it becomes a story common across every enterprise. The company got comfortable with success & running things became more important than innovating or listening to customers.

When you have a success, the natural inclination is to keep that success going. Whether it is a winning toy, the best selling car, or a fine-tuned mainframe. As the saying goes,

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The goal shifts to optimizing the “golden goose” by producing more product for less cost. The only innovations considered are iterative ones to improve what exists. This causes the workforce to spend less time doing work and more time orchestrating work. Research & development (R&D) is not a priority, so leadership focuses on process & cost optimization.

In organizations that have a R&D culture, the one unique characteristic that defines the culture is a bias towards learning. They measure growth not by marketshare but by what they learn from research. They spend time deeply thinking about industry challenges. Teams have the freedom to explore new ideas, challenge dogma, and learn on their own.

Contrast that with most organizations where innovation is not a priority. They champion success of current products, services, and markets. They prefer busyness to thinking. Teams are reticent to rock the boat, challenge status quo, or question the experts. When an organization prioritizes what is already working, learning is not important.

This is the existential balance in all organizations between business as usual management vs. transformative management. We like success, taking action, being part of the crowd, and relying on the comfort of experts. It feels much safer than putting yourself out there with your failures, being the dissenter, taking ownership when lacking confidence, and planning when all your peers appear “busy”.

This cultural foundation has a profound effect on how management responds to broad change. Take the adoption of Agile for example. In Agile transformations, the desire is to be more responsive to customer feedback and deliver value faster to customers. This means the organization needs to be more iterative and experimental, give teams freedom to experiment and collaborate, and accept failure as a path to eventual success. This is the mantra spread by the executive leadership during the transformation.

Management however is accountable for delivering results. What executives say does not often mirror what they expect from the rank and file based on goals & incentives. Instead employees operate in an environment maxed out on work, stymied by compliance and rules, and cordoned off in a silo without the benefit of learning or fresh ideas.

Many IT leaders and managers have expressed frustration being pulled in two directions at once. They want to foster a learning culture, but the management conundrum constraints their ability to act. When a Sev 1 production issue hits in the middle of the day or a critical app fails and results in regulatory action, that derails efforts toward a learning culture. It takes a bold risk to stop business as usual, put a stake in the ground, and prioritize what is important long-term over what is urgent in the short-term.

The Important Vs. Urgent Quadrant

The next few weeks I will share how organizations have transitioned to a learning culture and overcome the management conundrum. The overarching themes are controlling work in progress, aligning talent to work, fostering safety to fail, and enabling collaboration. The result will be a framework that can ensure large scale organizational change has a fighting chance to succeed.

What have you seen as the biggest obstacle in initiating change in your organization? How have you cultivated a learning culture on your team?

Two Hard Problems

“There are 2 hard problems in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-1 errors.”

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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