Delusion is a strong word. It's a word used in psychology for "a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact." It is a word associated with disorder. I use that word here to describe the beliefs of some organizations because I see these things as so wrong, so completely incompatible with reality that I wonder how it's possible that anyone in an organization can possibly believe them.
I should say that not all corporations share these delusions and I should also say that the larger the corporation is the higher the probability is that they have them. I've been doing consulting for a long time so I've had the good fortune to work with many different organizations. In that time I've run into all sorts of structures, people, and delusions.
Here are the four most common corporate delusions from my observations:
- We're unique and special. (No one else has anything close to our needs.)
- We're productive. (We get things done.)
- We're effective. (We get things done that matter.)
- We have a specific process. (We know what we are doing.)
I'm going to dive into each one of these delusions and expose why they are so insidious.
One: We're Unique and Special
Having been a consultant full time or part time for the better part of 20 years, I've got to say to everyone: You are unique. You are special. You just as unique or special as you believe you are. I'm sure you've run into challenges that no one else has. However, that's the exception. It's not the rule. You don't pave every path. If you did you'd never get anything done. (See item #2.)
Here's the problem. Because you believe that you're unique you don't listen to experience. You hire experts to come in and help you with your problems. They produce beautiful full color reports, graphs, and presentations. You applaud the research. Your marvel at the insight. However, in the end when it comes to implementing what the consultants have recommended someone stands up and says "that may work for the industry, but it doesn't work for us" and the plans get put on hold until someone can quell the objection – but no one can. The problem is that everyone wants to believe their organization is unique. They want to believe that their organization is special. How can you prove – without implementing – that the recommendation isn't right?
In the end, the nay sayers freeze progress. So if you're smart you'll actually implement the expensive advice that you've paid for.
Two: We're Productive
We want to believe that we get things done. Each of us processes our mail. We attend the company meetings. We do the required training on sexual harassment. (We should be REALLY good at it by now.) We go to the implementation meetings for the strategy (or insight) in the last book the CEO read. However, if you take a step back you've got to wonder. What actually gets done?
Do you deliver the projects that you're working on "on time"? What about "on budget"? Do you walk into meetings where people around the table whine about the number of meetings and the lack of time to get things done – in order to support the fact that they didn't get their action items for the team done? Does anyone ever wonder why you need so many meetings? Could it be because you have to have the same meeting over-and-over again because team members don't get their action items done? Could it be that we don't do what we know we should do – document decisions, issues, action items, and risks?
We are busy. That's easy. The question is whether we're getting things done. In most large organizations, I can say that things don't get done. Projects just slowly take longer than planned. They release with half the features. In the end everyone has a party and drinks enough to not remember what they had originally planned. (I believe this is why many project charters end up missing.)
Three: We're Effective
Some organizations have implemented Six Sigma, Project Management Offices, Project Dashboards, and other techniques to keep projects from falling off into oblivion. These organizations have made it much harder to avoid accountability – good for them. However, somewhere along the way they've sanitized the sanity right out of the process. Some of my clients won't accept invoices via email. Why? That's a great question – and one that no one can really explain. Some claim it is compliance. (Yet, SOX doesn't have a requirement to kill trees – although admittedly it's good at that.) Others claim "we just don't do things that way" – with echoes of "We're unique and special."
In the end, the organization ends up making copies of documents, mailing them across the country to be signed and returned. Checklists are created to manage the documents that are out for review. Reminder mails are sent to indicate that the required approvals haven't been provided yet – and the machine churns on and on and on. We know that these processes aren't efficient but no one is willing to stick their neck out to fix them. The delusion that the organization is effective remains.
That isn't to say that there aren't executive retreats where some high priced consultant comes in to draw arrows and blindfolds the whole team and ask them to grope around the room. (Now you know why there are so many sexual harassment training sessions.) That isn't to say that there isn't some super-secret lofty strategy of how the organization is going to dominate the world by building a better mouse trap. However, implementing any of the important stuff that would really drive the business forward tends to get stalled. The transmission between the strategy and the tactics break down and at some level the same things are discussed at a new resort with a new consultant the next year.
The organization should be constantly evaluating its processes to identify which ones are helping it to be effective and which ones are creating work for people who don't need it. Remember we're all too busy. We need to make it clear how to implement the strategies that will drive the organization forward by converting them to specific tactics and assigning those tactics to specific people.
Four: We Have a Specific Process
Somehow when I entered the business world I developed this mistaken impression that corporations actually knew what they did. I couldn't have been more wrong. When the ISO9000 craze hit manufacturing I was blown away. When I got into it I realized that really all ISO9000 said was … "say what you do and do what you say." I thought this was plainly obvious. (I'm glad they didn't have to tell us to breathe.) In my work with clients I get to work on workflows. I get to ask them to describe their processes so that I can automate them. If would frighten you to know how many corporate "processes" aren't processes at all. Instead they're a loose collection of steps that most people "sort of" understand.
I've walked into meetings and watched spectacular fights erupt as different business users argued vehemently about how a process worked – or didn't. I've seen just short of literal fist fights as people had been working a process for years and fundamentally didn't agree on how it worked – let alone why it was being done. I often ask questions and get answers of "I don't know" – when I'm asking simple things like what happens when something doesn't fit the process. There's no standard procedure for handling exceptions – or even recognizing that an exception has happened. (That's why you should be prepared to follow up on anything important.)
At a high level most organizations understand their large processes. However, the devil really is in the details. They can't tell you what happens when they receive an invoice that doesn't have a valid PO# or contact person on it. (Actually, I believe they are routed into special micro black holes that the accounting department has.) Ask what happens when a shipment arrives that no one authorized. Ask what happens to a customer order when the order was accepted but the customer is over their credit limit.
Organizations need to understand their processes – enough that they can figure out what things are falling out, what things are taking too much time, and where they can optimize.
The Doctor's Prescription is Simple
These delusions aren't actually that hard to resolve – they're all solvable by holding people accountable for improvement. You see. You can't hire high priced consultants in to produce reports and then not do anything about them if you're accountable for those funds. You can't fail to be productive and effective and not create improvement. You can't improve until you know what you're doing.
Startlingly, few managers are willing to deal with the backlash that will come when people are actually held accountable for what they do or don't get done – that is until the board has to hire a turnaround specialist to bail the organizations out before it goes out of business for good. (When faced with job loss most people will do what it takes to be successful – even if it means being held accountable.)
To be clear, I'm not attaching specific organizations. I'm not saying everyone has these problems. I'm saying I've seen these things more than I should have in my experience. I'm also not saying that small businesses have a lock on the world of doing things right. I make plenty of my own mistakes. I have plenty of my own delusions – however, hopefully I'll listen as my friends, partners, customers, and vendors point them out to me.