Friday, 23 November 2012

How To Spot A Zombie Organization

With the current proliferation of Zombie movies, it’s probably timely to consider what useful messages are hidden within Zombie movies as a cultural art-form and what we can usefully transfer into the way we lead and manage organizations.

To start with, what do we know about Zombies? Firstly their shared characteristic is that they are only marginally alive which means that
a) their movement is always clumsy,
b) they are always hungry for fresh human flesh and
c) they are unable to work things out for themselves (like how to open doors and drive cars).

These characteristics also apply to “Zombie Organizations”.

Zombie Organizations are clumsy because they pay no attention to their context. They are always stunned when the environment changes, the value of their current products, services and business models suddenly declines and the customer goes somewhere else, or a new high-value customer appears. Their response to change is always clumsy and tends to preserve political structures, value architectures and social narratives that justify their Zombie behaviours at the expense of the front-line.
Zombie Organisations are always hungry for “talent”, invest money in what they believe are talented people and are always surprised when the talented turn out to more ambitious than talented, the  good people leave and the supposedly “untalented” become increasingly disengaged. Their hunger for customers means that they will preserve high-volume, low margin commodity services and transactions at the expense of niche products which indicate the future forms that value will take.

Zombie Organisations are perpetually surprised by crises which in retrospect were highly predictable. Their failure to be curious, to revisit their Purpose, and to think systemically means that they purchase solutions which institutionalise their problems or tend to make them worse. A classic example is the consumption of engagement survey methodologies which lead to even more paternalistic attitudes by leaders who were originally recruited on the basis of their submissive/ deferential behaviour, who are then told to push the engagement survey dials by “aping” leadership behaviours that contradict traditional Zombie management culture. Another classic failure is the tendency to apply lean thinking to making current transactions more efficient when they are already obsolete.

The first step to recovery (as with all forms of physical and cultural addiction) is to accept that your organisation may be a Zombie Organisation (ZO) with Zombie Leaders and Zombie followers.
Further options include helping the Zombie Organisation to self-destruct or to isolate the dominant Zombie culture within its own organisation and then watch it fall apart. This can be done by pretending to be a Zombie yourself and exaggerating Zombie characteristics within the organisation (the equivalent of trapping them in a bus that goes over a cliff through offering them some live flesh to consume and then jumping out before it goes over a cliff). In other words, give them more of what they want, but use it to separate them from the parts of the organization that can be saved.

A less destructive and entertaining approach is to introduce the idea of the “Zombie Organization” and its characteristics and point out Zombie behaviours in meetings at work. This could include clumsy un-coordinated walking (with shaky asynchronous hand and leg movements) following others into meetings, wide-eyed unblinking staring combined with salivation from the corner of the mouth, mutterings of “flesh, must have more flesh” and an inability to manage the door handle to exit the room at the end of meetings.
A more systemic approach could include writing a white paper to back up legislation against ZOs or at least the management of their worst excesses; and the setting up a formal "Journal of Zombie Organizational Studies" (J4S-ZORGS) with peer-reviewed papers and a prestigious editorial board to explore the field of ZO studies. Unfortunately, this may have the effect of institutionalising the problem instead of solving it and encouraging the manufacture of specialist language that makes the topic inaccessible.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Tune Out, Turn Off: Disengage or Engage

There is a consistently-reported high level of disengagement linked to leadership in the workplace that manufactures both passively and actively-disengaged people. The level of disengagement is often quoted at up to a staggering 80% of the workforce[i]. But this problem is not restricted to the UK or USA it is a worldwide phenomenon. Leadership is routinely stated as one of the major sources of disengagement.  A quick look at Gallup’s 12 Questions on engagement show how most questions can be directly or indirectly related to leadership.

Since 1997 the Gallup Organization has surveyed approximately 3 million employees in three hundred thousand work units within corporations. This survey consists of 12 questions which measure employee engagement on a five-point scale indicating weak to strong agreement. Analyses of survey results show that those companies with high Q12 scores experience lower turnover, higher sales growth, better productivity, better customer loyalty and other manifestations of superior performance.

Q1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
Q2. Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?
Q3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
Q4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
Q5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
Q6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
Q7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?
Q8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
Q9. Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
Q10. Do you have a best friend at work?
Q11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
Q12. In the last year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?
The Gallup Engagement Index slots people into one of three categories:

• Engaged employees who work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.
• Not-Engaged employees who are essentially “checked out.” They may be in the building but they are sleepwalking through their workday. They are putting in time, but going through the motions with low enough energy or passion in their work.
• Actively Disengaged employees who aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness in their relationships with their colleagues. These workers undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish every day through virtual sabotage. They would rather be somewhere else, even if they can’t think of an alternative.
Results of the survey vary from country to country, organisation to organisation, age, education and gender. The results have ranged from 70% to 80% in disengaged employees over nearly a decade. Here are the results from Gallup Employee last year.  The Gallup Engagement Index in the US shows that the current trends remained relatively stable throughout 2011:
A.      Engaged = 29%
B.      Not engaged = 52%
C.      Actively disengaged = 19%
What you will notice is that the population of A (29%) is probably carrying the remaining population of B & C (71%) on their backs. An obvious conclusion is that MF Leaders need to focus on reducing the B & C population ratio and converting significant populations into A-type Engaged workers if the business is to grow and innovate.

[i] Blacksmith, N., Harter, J. (2012) Majority of American Workers Not Engaged In Their Jobs - Highly educated and middle-aged employees among the least likely to be engaged.

It's People Who Innovate, Not Processes

We either innovate or we die. We broadly accept this dictum. But what do we choose to do about it? And on reflection, do our choices make real sense?

First Story

A few years ago, I was working with the consulting arm of a national healthcare system on the issue of the low rate of adoption of innovations developed at centres for excellence into local practice. I have always been intrigued by the joined issues of the psychology of incompetence and the form that resistance to change can take, often known as Not-Invented-Here (NIH) culture.

I ran an exercise involving both local practitioners and government consultants, and we came up with some powerful and interesting lessons for accelerating adoption of innovations. Being a big fan of the rule of 3 (the idea that if you can identify the top 3 issues and resolve these, then the remainder will probably take care of themselves), I facilitated the exercise to identify the 3 most powerful influencers of local adoption of innovations:

1. Use the language of the people who are going to implement the innovation, don’t use MBA language. Consultant language has a tendency to alienate user audiences and trigger powerful NIH behaviours. If you can, employ a typical “user” of the solution who has strong links with the audience that you want to influence, and who expresses themselves authentically.

2. Demonstrate the real results gained to show it’s worth doing: ideally, try to show benefits not only to the customer, but also to the user who makes the innovation happen.

3. Recruit people who think innovating is part of everyday work. Try to employ people who want to innovate, or at the very least make it clear that work is going to involve a continual interest in improving and changing performance.

On reflection, the lessons can be reduced to 3 words: language, benefits and perhaps they are all about the psychology of innovation.

Second Story

At the beginning of 2008, I was working with the Heads of Innovation of 2 businesses which had recently been acquired. I was facilitating a series of discussions about the future shape and direction of innovation strategy in the newly-merged organisation. On the surface, these Heads of Innovation were complying, but in reality they were stressed, and naturally jockeying for dominance and succession or for golden exits. The official outcome was going to be their agreed strategy for doubling turnover through innovation within 3 years. After 2 sessions together, I found that they were playing the old scientist game of questioning me in detail about the legitimacy of the facilitation techniques I was employing, instead of focusing on the issue. Once I had resolved this, I found that we moved onto a technical discussion of stage gate innovation processes (where you segment your invention to innovation process into defined stages, and apply rules that determine progression beyond each stage). The game they wanted to play here, was to pretend that having an integrated, and shared approach to stage-gate definition and decision-making would solve the problem of innovation to drive an aggressive growth target. When I began to pressure them on the issue of innovation talent, and demolished the assumption that scientific ambition was the same thing, it became clear that creative individuals were largely marginalised and isolated within a scientific bureaucracy that was under-performing.

They wanted to avoid the fact that when it came down to people, they didn’t have the right people to deliver the kind of innovation to drive growth that the new organisation required. And that they didn’t think that it was important. Life would go on (they hoped) much as before.


Both these consulting exercises (first and second stories) had a profound effect on my thinking. I have always been a “process” man. I have developed and facilitated the co-creation of innovation processes, applied lean thinking both within and outside the automotive industry, implemented business process redesign, and even taught process leadership as a technique for making processes work within organisations. But I couldn’t avoid the obvious conclusion over time, that

1. Whilst processes are useful as a means of focusing attention and reducing the need to relearn the obvious, they cannot be a substitute for understanding the psychology of innovation.
2. Whilst history has shown us examples where innovative people with deficient processes have found a way to succeed, there are few examples of mediocre people succeeding because they had great processes.