Against Slavery to Ideology & Method

The older I get the more I notice that the autonomy and the intelligence of folks in large organisations is put at the service of some ideology and/or method that has taken root in the heart-mind of someone higher up in the organisation.  Typically, this happens when that particular ideology (e.g. “customer-centricity”) and/or method (e.g. “Agile”) has planted itself in the wider business world.

What’s the impact?  Allow me to convey the impact through the following assertion made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

What tends to show up when folks in organisation are ‘in chains’ to some doctrine/method?  This is what I have observed: Stupidity, game playing, and a decrease in effectiveness.

Adherence to the doctrine/method surpasses reasoning hence folks end up doing stuff which they know does not make sense.  To get things done it is often necessary to bypass-bend the doctrine/method.  Therein starts the game playing – making it look like the doctrine/method is being followed when it is not.  The overall impact is a decrease in effectiveness. By effectiveness I mean both outcomes and the workability/capability that generates the  outcomes.

New ideology, method, toolset is introduced with great fanfare. Yet with little understanding: know-how as well as know-what and know-about.  Given sufficient time performance declines.  The Tops and Middles blame the people.  Clearly given the God given status of the ideology/method/toolset the people have to be at fault.  They are not following the method.  I have yet to see the suitability of the method/tool being seriously questioned.  As a result, adherence to doctrine/method is tightened rather than relaxed.  This further degrades the workability/capability of the organisation.  I refer to this as layering stupidity on stupidity.

What is an intelligent way to go about leading-managing an organisation?  Forget doctrine / ideology. Forget method.  Forget blind obedience to anything. Instead focus on calling forth the collective intelligence of your people AND enhancing the workability of your organisation. Let me put this simply: take a zen stance, let fall all fixed thinking (ideology, doctrine, methods, tools..), go to where the action is occurring, and look – really look. Then select the right course of action / method / tool. Once the method/tool has served its purpose, drop it! Like the canoes, when you have used it to cross the river, leave it there at the side of the bank.

Allow me to end this conversation by sharing this story with you:

When the bishop’s ship stopped at a remote island for the day, he determined to use the time as profitably as possible. He strolled along the seashore and came across three fishermen mending their nets. In pidgin English they explained that centuries before they had been Christianised by missionaries. “We Christian!” they said, proudly pointing to one another. The bishop was impressed. Did they know the Lord’s Prayer? They had never heard of it. The bishop was shocked.

“What do you say, then, when you pray?”

“We lift our eyes to heaven. We pray, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.”

The bishop was appalled at the primitive, the downright heretical nature of their prayer. So he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The fisherman were poor learners, but they gave it all they had and before the bishop sailed away the next day he had the satisfaction of hearing them go through the whole formula without a fault.

Months later, the bishop’s ship happened to pass those islands again, and the bishop, as he paced the deck saying his evening prayers, recalled with pleasure the three men on that distant island who were now able to pay, thanks to his patient efforts. While he was lost in that thought, he happened to look up and noticed a spot of light in the east. The light kept approaching the ship, and the bishop gazed in wonder he saw three figures walking on the water. The captain stopped the ship, and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight.

When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognised his three friends, the fishermen. “Bishop!” they exclaimed. “We hear your boat go past island and came hurry hurry meet you.”

“What is it you want?” asked the awe-stricken bishop.

“Bishop,” they said, “we so, so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come…’ then we forget. Please tell us prayer again.”

The bishop felt humbled. “Go back to your homes, my friends,” he said, “and each time you pray say, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!”

Summing up: Many, many, many leaders/managers can do with keeping this story in mind, putting aside the arrogance that goes with their elevated roles, and adopting the pragmatic humility of the bishop.  Focus on workability and use whatever method/tool is appropriate. Do not make a God of a specific doctrine, method, tool.  If you are going to make a God out of anything, then make a God out of your people – their potential to do amazing work and create amazing works.

Enough for today. I thank you for your listening and wish you great living. Until the next time….

 

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.

3 thoughts on “Against Slavery to Ideology & Method”

  1. Hello Maz,
    Your story reminds me so much of what I hear from a good friend of mine…
    She had worked in an organization that was failing to produce results. She observed that everyone was focused on adhering to the right process, rather than focusing producing the right results. This was deemed to be acceptable behavior.

    When the board of directors installed a new president, and new senior leadership, those long-accepted processes suddenly meant nothing, and people were judged on the results they produced. It turned out that those processes were “the chains of the people.”

    Best,
    Jim Watson

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    1. Hello Jim,
      I thank you for caring enough to share this. That which you have shared I find easy to believe as worshipping at the altar of process has been the thing since the days BPR took off thanks to Champy and Hammer. I wish you the very best.

      Maz

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  2. Stupidity, game playing, and a decrease in effectiveness.

    Surely not.

    Better still is “methodology slagging”, where senior managers use others methodologies as an excuse for their own poor performance

    The funny thing is that most of the methodologies preach fundamentally the same message. Give your customers what they want.

    That nuance gets lost in the slavish sticking to the “one way”.

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