Organizational Obsolescence

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Walk into most book stores, and look at the books on leadership that line the shelves, and you'll see very few that address the actual organizational structure of a business. If there are, the focus is primarily about measuring performance, not about how the business is structured.  As valuable as quality programs are, as change mechanisms, they are incremental at best if the real need is a reinvention of the culture and purpose of the business.

The chief problem affecting organizational performance today is not the ability of people to perform, but the structure within which they do so. 

This video is a snap shot of a conversation between two military officers. We have two cultures clashing in this conversation. One is the culture of the careerist who is a slave to the structure of the system. The other culture is of the leader who understands the organization's mission (which is not the perpetuation of the structure) and the leadership of the people who serve to achieve that mission.

If you are familiar with the HBO mini-series Generation Kill ( I highly recommend it.) you'll see these same two cultures colliding. You see the officer corps who are concerned about the unit's mission (which is in effect is reduced to their concerns about their own career advancement and longevity) and the NCO culture, where the concern is for the men who are charged with the dangerous mission that combat soldiers have.

The bureaucratic structure that constrains many large, complex organizations requires dramatic levels of change in order to function well in the future.

Network-Hierarchy Image
This image is one I've used before as a way to visualize a collaborative team working within a traditional hierarchical structure. Hierarchy does not necessarily exclude collaboration. Rather, when the system has turned in on itself to the point that the organization's mission is now the perpetuation the its structure, then you end up having the clash of cultures that is seen in the video.

The longer I work with issues affecting leaders the more convinced I am that structure is the last frontier of organizational development. There are three things to say about this.

1. The structure of an organization exists to serve the mission and the people who are employed to bring to fulfillment. 

It is a tool. Nothing more. To make it more brings it into conflict with the organization's mission. Yet, what I see is structure dictating what the mission should be, and how people are to function with in it. The structure of a business exists to facilitate the leadership of each individual member of the organization. By leadership, I mean the personal initiative that each person takes in collaboration with others to fulfill the mission of the organization. 

2. Structure is ultimately determined by leadership.

If a structure functions as it does in the animation above, then it is because the leadership of the system has allowed it to degenerate to that point. The relation between executive leadership and structure is a moral one. As a tool, structure serves a purpose. Just as a hammer can drive a nail into a board to build a house, it can also break a window to steal a briefcase from a car. The hammer remains what it is. It is the human use of that tool that determines its moral value.

3. Structures, not aligned with the organization's mission, and not open to the individual leadership of its members, will ultimately fail.

There is no such reality that a structure is too big to fail. They are failing all around us. Evidenced by the disparities in compensation, high unemployment rates, and the inability of many organizations to adapt to a changing economic environment.

The Leadership Question for 2011.

As we begin a new year, I want to raise some questions that we all reflect upon during the coming year.

Is your business structure obsolete?

Are your employees reflecting enthusiasm, independent initiative, collaborative decision-making and a passion for mission?

As the senior leader of your business, are you a liberating force for change or a careerist seeking to maximize your own personal benefit from a broken, declining system?

If any of these are true, then you need to take some time to consider what your alternatives are.

Every structure is just a tool. Resolve, then, to develop the very best structure to serve your business.

The challenge is before us all. The time to address these issues is now.


The Importance of Executive Experience

Donald Sensing writes an interesting and insightful post on President Obama as Chief Executive. He uses Mae West and the Peter Principle as his reference points for describing the President's performance in office.

We have here a Mae West presidency, which I illustrate with two quotes of the platinum blondeshell:
1. It's better to be looked over than overlooked.

2. There's no such thing as bad publicity.

And,

... the trip illustrates perfectly why the president is a premier example of the Peter Principle.

"The Peter Principle is the principle that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the "salutary science of Hierarchiology", "inadvertently founded" by Peter. ...

The Peter Principle is a special case of a ubiquitous observation: anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.

I'm not totally convinced about the first assessment. Though after the last two weeks with the UN, the G-20 and the Olympics, I'm more open to the notion. 

I am very much convinced that the Peter Principle has come home to roost in the President. His lack of executive experience has been telling all along. The true believers won't buy this critique, but anyone who has had to run a business sees the tell-tale signs of inexperience.

Here are three examples of poor executive performance by the President.

1. Managing the budget. Many executives ascend to the highest office in their companies and take on the attitude that the budget is now their personal slush fund. Not only the rise in indebtedness, but the assumption that all our economic problems are solved by throwing money at them, is evidence of an inexperienced executive.

2. Growing the ranks of middle management. President Obama's use of executive czars is no different than adding more layers of management to a company's staffing chart. Obviously he doesn't know or understand what lean management means. In effect, the czars serve as unaccountable surrogates for the President. This weakens the chief executive officer's position making him more removed from the day-to-day happenings in the organization.

3. Leading by making hard decisions. This is one part of Sensing's post that I found most insightful as he writes about the relationship between Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower.

After John F. Kennedy was elected, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spent many hours with him. One of the key lessons was this: "All the decisions you will make," said Eisenhower, "will be hard decisions." Dwight went on to explain that the easy things will be tended to by cabinet secretaries and others of the administration with executive authority. But the tough ones will always be kicked to higher levels to be decided. At every level, the decisions become more and more difficult until, at last, the presidential inbox is filled with nothing but the most difficult items. 

Executive inexperience shows when the executive tries to do too much, tries to be too influential in too many areas, tries to push too many agendas, and consequently fails to maintain command of the big picture. This becomes a picture of a leader without focus or discipline.

From the Iowa caucuses through to today, my impression of Barack Obama is of a talented rhetorician, but not an executive. Unfortunately, making eloquent speeches is really a secondary task of the presidency. It can enhance or detract from the executive responsibilities, but being president is not the same as being the chief spokesperson for the American people.

President Obama will succeed or fail based on his executive abilities, not his politics or his rhetorical skills. He has much to learn, and little time to do so. 

HT: Instapundit