I see “innovation campaigns” and change management initiatives all of the time in corporations. Most of them never achieve any positive results. In the worst case, failed change management initiatives increase cynicism and depress morale further.
Innovation and change, like morale, are things that all leaders in all corporations will agree they always need more of. However, innovation and change are very slippery items. Like the wind, you know they are there, but they can head in all directions, and are difficult to steer, and even more difficult to capture and grow.
Having watched the trends in IT solution delivery and service provisioning in corporations in the USA and Europe for over 30 years, I have come to some conclusions about why so many corporations are currently struggling with innovation and change initiatives.
Leaving aside the approaches to fostering innovation, which are often bizarre and superficial, there are several underlying current pervasive dynamics that have the power to totally derail all attempts at fostering innovation and implementing organizational and/or cultural change.
1. Psychological Safety
One of the best ways in which a corporation can ensure that innovation is suppressed is to make it clear that the reward for taking risks or attempting new approaches is to be penalized by Exile or by being made redundant. The organization shows little or no tolerance for failure.
This article explains the concept of psychological safety extremely well.
It is up to leaders to create a climate where taking risks is not immediately shut down, and failures of innovation are not immediately punished. Whenever I hear leaders commenting to the effect that “our culture is risk-averse”, I immediately begin to worry that they are stewards of a climate where nobody with any sense of self-preservation is likely to propose any sort of innovation or change.
2. The offshore delivery work fiction
Most IT delivery organizations have been relentlessly reducing staffing levels for decades, often sending work offshore, where it is often performed poorly, at which point the remaining onshore team members have to “paper over the cracks” in order to elevate quality levels to an acceptable level for the client or end-users. (By the way, this “acceptable” level is often way below the previous quality level that was provided to the client). The result is a corporate fiction that the work is being performed offshore. In reality it is being bodged offshore, and fixed up onshore by a small number of over-worked resources. Those resources are usually too busy to even think about visiting the restroom, never mind engaging in innovation.
3. Reduction in SME coverage and predominance of tacit knowledge
Over the last 15 years I have seen groups progressively slimmed down to the point where only one person is a SME for key areas of the solution. If that person is (say) killed in a road accident this upcoming weekend, the organization will be in a dangerous place starting on Monday.
However, a one-person SME, in the current climate, will not willingly train another person to be a SME, since that introduces a risk (as the SME sees it) that the organization can WFR them in favor of the newly-trained SME.
If the request is to train an offshore person to become a SME, well, if you are the corporate leadership expecting willing participation from the onshore resources, you are below naive.
Ditto documentation of processes. When a person perceives that their employer is looking for an excuse to WFR them, they are going to make damn sure that their business and technical knowledge remains implicit and tacit, not explicit and documented. The default in that sort of climate is that Knowledge is Indispensability. It is probably not true, but that is how employees will see it, and, like just about any employee, they will behave in a “circle the wagons” way to protect their position.
A culture of innovation, like credibility, requires constant renewal and attention to detail. Just as credibility can be severely or degraded by one perceived failure to deliver on promises or committments, innovation interest and engagement can be severely impacted and driven down to zero by one incident where innovators were seen to be punished for failures.
One of the obvious co-morbid behaviors of narcissists is that they surround themselves with sycophants, who are in place specifically to do their bidding.
In the world of showbusiness, the collection of sycophants became known as an entourage, and many celebrities became notorious for the size and bad behavior of their entourages.
In the world of business, entourages are less common, but still can be observed.
However, more commonly the narcissistic corporate leader surrounds him or herself with trusted people who will enable their leadership style, wants and needs. They may not walk around as a pack in public, but everybody soon works out who the sycophants are. This is usually easy to determine, because they go with the leader wherever the leader goes. Within days or weeks of arriving at his or her new job, the sycophants show up, often with new roles for the new shiny improved organization that the leader is usually loudly and rapidly implementing.
The team members for Team Sycophant have to meet some rather elementary behavioral criteria:
Expected to unquestioningly obey the leader at all times, no matter how bizarre the demand might be
– Unconditional loyalty
Expected to show total loyalty to the leader at all times, publicly and privately
– Impervious to any message not coming from or approved by their leader
Expected to ignore any and all pushback and dissent, and merely to repeat the leadership directions and mantras
In return, sycophants are often very well-paid compared to other members of the corporation’s workforce that their nominal level. However, they owe their position almost entirely to the narcissistic leader’s whim. Narcissistic leaders have a habit of whimsically changing their minds, so sycophants, like courtiers in a medieval monarchy, can fall out of favor and be dispensed with (although, fortunately, literally losing one’s head is not their fate today). A significant portion of their exaggerated remuneration has to be seen as “danger money”.
Sycophants that are brought in by the narcissist fall into one of four general archetypes detailed below.
Sometimes the roles and archetypes are combined. Frequently, the Enforcer and Hatchet-man are the same person, because of the overlap in the required behavior pathology. Sometimes the narcissist retains the role of hatchet-man.
1. The Doer
Doers are the troops for the narcissist to impose his or her will on the corporate group. They are usually young, inexperienced, obedient, and they present themselves as the palatable alternative to the Enforcer. Their interactions become a variant of “Good Cop, Bad Cop”. They would probably not have a role in the organization if the narcissist was not present.
Narcissistic leaders often have a bench of Doers that they can call upon to replace members of the narcissist’s new organization who quit or who are dispensed with.
2. The Enforcer
The Enforcer’s role is to neutralize or eliminate all dissent and ensure total committment by teams to the execution of the leader’s demands. This is achieved by a mixture of intimidation and bluff. The elimination of dissent is usually unsubtle, comprising warnings that dissent will not be tolerated, followed swiftly by the exiling or termination of dissenters. The exiling or termination approach also extends to any team members deemed to be “not with the program”, i.e. insufficiently committed or capable. If they are dispensed with, they are replaced by one or more Doers.
The Enforcer is usually an older person, experienced in project and program management.
3. The Hatchet-man
The hatchet-man is the appointed executioner for the termination or elimination of people who are deemed to be no longer of any use to the leader. This usually involves firing the individuals. The hatchet-man may also be the person responsible for implementing other punitive actions designed to drive out dissenters, such as the elimination or bonuses, denial of benefits, promotions etc.
4. The intellectual
The Intellectual is on payroll to provide concise, plausible-sounding published rationalizations for the actions and direction of the leader covering two main areas:
– Deal Making
Narcissistic leaders often lack any appreciation of strategy, especially if (as is common) they derive their main enjoyment from deal-making. The main strategy of a deal-maker is to make the next deal bigger, and splashier than the last one, or to increase the number of deals, which usually translates to bigger revenues for the employer. The intellectual can provide a convincing post hoc rationalization of the deals that gives the appearance thay they are part of an overall strategy
– Explanation of change orders
Narcissists, lacking impulse control, are prone to issuing demands for changes that are impulsive (i.e. not even half-baked), and expecting immediate action. The intellectual has the job of creating explanations and justifications for the change demands that appear to make sense to an observer that either does not understand the pathology and process at work, or who lacks an inquiring mind.
The Intellectual is often affable, collegial, and, unlike the other three archetypes, superficially collaborative. However, they are still working for the narcissistic leader, and they have no interest in doing what is right, good and proper. Their job is to provide intellectual cover for whatever actions or directions have been demanded by the leader.
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Excellent blog posting that surfaces some of the obvious reasons why many managers and leaders in large corporations dislike Agile. The main takeaway – it conflicts with the top-down command-and-control model that is still prevalent in many large corporations.
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