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.

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