Monday, June 2, 2014

The Timeliness of Organization Renewal

Renewal Isn't a Fad
I’m a big believer that organizations must constantly renew themselves if they are to remain healthy and relevant.  I never shy away from the “fad of the month” allegation.  People may complain but it is these perceived fads, when used properly as levers, that keep energy, inspiration, and thinking in organizations. 

Organizations need ideas from everyone, everywhere if they are to remain sharp.  The toolbox to do this has become an expansive cornucopia.  But what are the origins and limits to this cornucopia?  Has it become a Hydra?

I got thinking about this a few weeks ago when a good friend of mine retired.  He’d been a senior finance executive and through his career he went to many “executive development” programs.  He was kind enough to sort through his papers and give me a file of some of the premier courses he’d attended.  Wow!  What an eye opener.

The documents in the file went back to the late 1970’s.  The contents spanned all the usual suspects: change, employee involvement, customer focus, and systems thinking.  My favorite is the HBR article of 1985 titled: Managing Innovation: controlled chaos. 

In reviewing the file I was shocked at how the basic concepts haven’t changed.  You could present the content of these courses to executives today if you genuflect to Apple rather than Kodak and Christensen rather than McGregor.

I was intrigued so I dug deeper into my own files.  Among other things I found a 1970’s Manual for Planning, Programming, and Budgeting .  This was a field guide for one of my first jobs.  It sprung from Robert McNamara’s time at the US-DOT.   As I reviewed the manual I realized that it contained most of what I know about planning and financial systems in large complex organization.

So, what’s my point in our new world where we’ve transitioned from paper to digital files; and where face to face sharing has given way to Webinars, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Tweeted hash tags?  Well, I’m concerned that we learn less because we have more.  Let me explain.

We have access to an incredible richness of thinking and practice in management science; however, we tend to select and refine our knowledge within functional silos.  As we drift further from the seminal source of an insight we get multiple interpretations of it cloaked in a myriad of case studies to support a single purpose.  There comes a point of unintelligible background noise that numbs the senses. 

For example, the concept of “jobs to be done” is attributed to Clay Christiansen, as a way to deeply understand the unarticulated needs of customers.  Recently the Human Resource community has taken this engaging concept and interpreted it into improved job descriptions.  Not to be outdone, Simplification professionals now use it to explain organizational roles.  We now have one concept living in three silos that can’t talk with one another.

It seems to me that “confusing the client” can’t be the purpose of all of this rich information and thinking.  We can do better.  Here’s a modest proposal: maybe organizations should have a designated center of “renewal” to regularize the organization’s point of view on the discipline of management science.  What are the organization’s consistent set of principles, definitions, practices, and methods that make sense out of the “fad of the month?”

I have consulted in several organizations that do this.  For example, I lead a Customer Loyalty project at Whirlpool when it was also engaged in a global initiative to build Innovation capability.  My team was “required” to learn and use Whirlpool’s accredited innovation toolbox for ideation, opportunity elaboration, and rapid experimentation as we worked with client teams to improve Whirlpool’s customer experience.

I know the flaw in this proposal: how do you control information flow in a world of free flowing information?  Well maybe technology doesn’t have to be a bane to management science; maybe it can solve this challenge.  I’d certainly prefer effort in this direction as opposed to what I see today where the “fad of the month” is stalled and resisted under the slogan: “if we stand still long enough we’ll be in the lead.”

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