A self-congratulatory project team is about to launch a global data center. Although no one on the team has been with company for more than two years, they have been very busy brainstorming, advocating for resources, gathering RFPs, planning, and implementing. It is now time to celebrate their breakthrough solution to the company’s chronic business problem. Hooray for them! And yet, the Navigator cannot help but feel that the celebrants are doomed to a dark and creepy downfall. Why? Because a short walk down a nearby hallway containing archives of company history would have revealed that a version of this approach was already tried and failed several years ago at a great loss to the company.
If you are in charge of providing a solution that will impact the organization, whether you are a project manager, change agent, or lead a business unit, continue reading to stay clear of hosting this tragically common stupid party.
Corporations Have Lost Their Minds
Reinventing the wheel has become a global corporate pastime. The wasteful churn of people, processes, and technology that the Navigator and his network have witnessed goes unchallenged by an employee population whose eyes are ever-bent on their mobile devices. Ideas that are considered different or new are aggressively supported when they are really no better than what they already have. Where does this lack of intellectual honesty come from? The Navigator’s first assumption was that this condition is a modern phenomenon rooted in our gig economy whose influence has corrupted the full-time employee with a TaskRabbit mentality. But this was dispelled when he learned that George Gurdjieff, an influential early 20th-century mystic, philosopher, and spiritual teacher held that most humans live in a state of robotic “waking sleep” and it is only through great self-discipline that they can hope to live a fully engaged life. This severe-looking bald man with a mustache who was born in 1877 concluded that the robot problem had been around a long time.
You are now likely wondering if you, yourself are a robot. Ask yourself if you have contributed in some way to these real examples that occurred during the Navigator’s tenure:
- Expensive software licenses and multi-year project plans reside on a key employee’s laptop. When that employee leaves the company, the laptop is scrubbed of data and given to a new employee. The resulting loss causes software to re-purchased and project plans to be re-built from scratch. The lack of intellectual property management is rampant in corporations and millions are lost each year.
- Departments across the company, each unaware of the efforts of the other, purchase expensive solutions, and/or contract with consultants who create layered, redundant, or contradictory processes. At one particularly large global insurer, a consulting firm was hired to propose solutions for unravelling the layers of solutions designed by past consultants. The principal consultant remarked: “It’s like scraping decades of barnacles off on an old ship”.
- The Navigator was flummoxed when a new head of HR in a global finance firm successfully lobbied to purchase a multi-million-dollar enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that touted “data integration” as its strength. The Navigator was told to ‘mind his own business’ when he advocated keeping the existing ERP platform that also featured data integration but those features had simply not been ‘turned on’.
- The executive committee of a global business demanded to re-instate an annual $500,000 executive training program in which 30 senior managers a year were sent to an exclusive week-long university business school workshop. The Navigator was curious to see how past executives from the company benefitted from the program that the company chose to end three years prior. Company records revealed that 70% of those who attended the program had left the company.
- A global company was not aware that employees in different countries were contracting with the same vendor to create redundant versions of the same product.
Executives and Employees Aren’t What They Were
The robot behavior contributing to the examples above has infiltrated the entire corporate world in every industry and sector. Few question their environment and how decisions are made. Curiosity has been replaced by incessant urgency. Instead of building for the long term, C-Suite execs look to ‘quarter close’, and managers seek tactics of deflection until their next performance review. Baby boomers tread water until they retire. Millennials view their positions as short-term gigs. The aggregate of all these special interests is that employees no longer strive for the big picture and thus disengage from their broader workplace. Incessant turnover exacerbates all of the above with the loss of the tenured employee who might question the wisdom of short-sighted investments. Senior managers who lead a function come and go at an ever-faster pace. Each new leader replaces the team they inherited in a year’s time. The cost is inestimable given the ill-advised decisions of a greener cast of decision makers.
If you want to safeguard your own reputation before proposing a solution that will tax your organization’s resources with little return, you will need to do some digging; a foundational step in sound change management.
Look for Success or Failures Outside Your Department
When trying to solve a business problem, diligent change agents examine the relationships between people, process and technology and in that precise order. They will want to know if the people have the right skills, attitudes, and buy-in, and most importantly, senior management commitment. Only then will they consider a process and a technology. And yet, short cutting directly to a technology solution is seductive when a deadline looms and your stakeholders are expecting a dramatic presentation at the quarterly executive committee meeting. After all, a technology solution is much sexier than a people solution because of its theatrical potential of flowcharts and software demos. While ‘quick wins’ play a role in demonstrating progress to those you are trying to impress, don’t let them define your approach to complex problems. It will feel like a slam dunk in the short term, but when a new manager replaces your existing one (and they always do), they will be suspicious of any major project started before their tenure. They will look for support of your project among your stakeholders and they will find none.
Before you propose anything, do some digging into the history of your organization when it comes to change. A great place to start is to identify the successes or failures of other initiatives that took place in other functions or divisions. For example, if you are in Human Resources and you are considering the purchase of an expensive Learning Management System (LMS), first take a look at the Underwriting division to see how well they fared in adopting a Customer Relationship Management system (CRM). If the underwriters failed to use the system because senior management felt it took too much time away from their daily tasks, your LMS will likely sit gathering dust as well. It is likely that your organization can supply many examples of ill-fated programs from which you can learn a host of lessons and adjust your plan accordingly.
Ask Questions. Ask More Questions.
In addition to gauging the appetite for change in your organization, you can champion an inquisitive / investigative approach among your team. A good planning meeting should have its team members asking these questions:
- Is the problem we are trying to solve recognized by all of senior management?
- Has this solution ever been tried? What was the result?
- Who knows the history of past programs in our division? In other divisions?
- Has the culture changed since the last attempt at solving this problem?
- Have we fully adopted all the tools and programs to which we have already committed before looking at something new?
- Have we delegated too much authority to consultants?
- This directive appears contradictory with what we heard a few weeks ago. How do we reconcile that?
- Who on the team has tackled something like this before? How different is our current situation?
- Will our solution conflict with or be redundant to other solutions that already exist?
- How will we measure success in early, mid, and long-term phases of our solution?
When attempting to regain some control of an initiative that has become a runaway train, there is nothing as powerful as asking a question. And you can ask respectful questions regardless of where you sit in an org chart. The longevity of your organization, and your career, depend on it.
Maybe this will make firms consider having, or at least not making redundant, company archivists/librarians? What on the face of it seems a superfluous position could save money and time, providing records are well kept and easy to access. I’ve seen the situation described above happen remarkably frequently. One reason, I believe, is due to employees today frequently moving between different industries during their career paths. Effective managers recruited from different, unrelated fields may genuinely have no idea that the solutions they are preposing have a history of failing in one industry, even if it has worked in their pervious… Read more »
You are so right.People seem to want to get married to a quick fix and do not look for the long haul. This in my mind is why some serious firms are considering going private
When my immediate manager is only interested in the “quick win” and even the basic research I have uncovered informs me that the proposed plan has major flaws, how should I proceed? I more than suspect his agenda does not align with the long term goals of the organization. I am concerned about my next performance review if I question his approach.
I’m not sure what to make of your argument. I work in a very fast paced environment and we are expected to turn around solutions quickly. You seem to be saying that people who are asked to come up with new programs or solutions for a company should “just say no”. How long would people stay employed if they took that approach?