Are Leaders & Management Practices The Key Obstacles To High Performing Organisations?

2015 has been another year where I have found myself at the coalface of organisational change: digital transformation, customer experience, CRM and marketing automation….  What is the key ‘thing’ that has struck me?

The ongoing blindness of Tops and Middles, the messiness of effecting any substantial organisational change, and how Tops and Middles are often the biggest barrier to effecting this kind of change.

Allow me to illustrate what I am getting at by sharing a few passages from one of the best business books (Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull) that I read in 2015. by sharing the following with you (bolding is mine):

When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless. That’s what I believe. But unwittingly, we were allowing this table …. to send a different message.  The closer you were seated to the middle of the table, it implied, the more important – the more central – you must be. The farther away, the less likely you were to speak up – your distance from the heart of the conversation made participating feel intrusive…. Without intending to, we’d created an obstacle that discouraged people from jumping in. 

Over the course of a decade, we held countless meetings around this table in this way – completely unaware of how doing so undermined our own core principles.  Why were we blind to this? Because the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded.  Those not sitting at the centre of the table, meanwhile, saw quite clearly how it established a pecking order but presumed that we – the leaders – had intended the outcome. Who were they, then, to complain? 

It wasn’t until we happened to have a meeting in a smaller room with a square table that John and I realised what was wrong. Sitting around the table, the interplay was better, the exchange of ideas more free flowing, the eye contact automatic. Every person there, no matter their job title, felt free to speak up….. At our long, skinny table, comfortable in our middle seats, we had utterly failed to recognise that we were behaving contrary to …..

Over time, we’d fallen into a trap. Even though we were conscious that a room’s dynamics are critical to any good discussion, even though we believed that we were constantly on the lookout for problems, our vantage point blinded us to what was right before our eyes…… I went to our facilities department…. A few days later …. our new table was installed, solving the problem.

Still, interestingly, there were remnants of that problem that did not immediately vanish just because we’d solved it.…. While we’d fixed the key problem that had made place cards seem necessary, the cards themselves had become tradition that would continue until we specifically dismantled it. 

This is the nature of management. Decisions are made, usually for good reasons, which in turn prompt other decisions. So when problems arise….. disentangling them is not as simple as correcting the original error. Often finding a solution is a multi-step endeavour. There is the problem you know you are trying to solve  (think of that as the oak tree) and then there are all the other problems (think of these as saplings) that sprouted from the acrorns that fell around it. And these problems remain after you cut the oak tree down……

For me, the key to solving these problems is finding ways to see what’s working and what isn’t, which sounds a lot simpler than it is…… in a way I’ve been searching all my life for better ways of seeing. 

Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc

I invite you to notice the following about the way we – human beings – show up and operate:

  1. We automatically assume that our actions are in line with our beliefs;
  2. As long as it feels right for us we assume that it is right;
  3. We can be blind to that which is right in front of us for decades. Why? See point 2 above;
  4. The access to change is breakdown in the routine that changes lived experience – in the case of Ed Catmull finding himself having a meeting with the team in a smaller room with a square table and feeling the difference in the experience of communicating with one another;
  5. The nature of human life is entanglement – many ‘things’ are entangled with many other ‘thing’ – therefore, solving problems is much harder than creating them;
  6. The key to high performance of any kind is deliberately setting about creating situations which expose you to new situations, shift your vantage point, affect your feelings.  So if you want to know what it is like to be a customer then be a customer. If you want to know what it is like to be a call-centre agent then be a call-centre agent – regularly……
  7. Transformation  – business transformation, customer experience transformation, digital transformation – does not occur overnight. And it certainly does not come ‘out of the box’ whether that is through the strategists toolbox, the best practices toolbox, or the cloud software as a service toolbox.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

2 thoughts on “Are Leaders & Management Practices The Key Obstacles To High Performing Organisations?”

    1. Hello James,
      You make a great point. We are all blind or as Heidegger put it every truth obscures/hides/distorts something. Put differently, it is impossible for anyone of us to get a 360 degree view of the situation as it is. Awareness of this, is the antidote. How so? 1) By including folks who by their position in the social field (of human affairs) see the world differently, show up differently in the world. 2) By leaving one’s position (role, status) and occupying-filling different roles so as to experience (live) the world from the vantage point of this position.

      I wish you the very best for this New Year. May 2016 be the very best year, yet, of your life.

      maz

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