January 30, 2008

The second horseman of the apocalypse is War. He rides a red horse. He is of course the natural follower of Pestilence: Pestilence spawns blame, blame with power spawns strife, and strife with a polarized sense of right and wrong, spawns wholesale war. We cannot say that we have wholesale war in the organization I described in my last post, but the levels of aggression and resentment are high.

We tend to think of war as high drama, high ideals, high purpose (despite our long history of grey, messy and morally ambiguous violence). Wars have a story, they begin and end. They have heroes and villains.

But the last century also taught us that aggression can be institutionalized, that wars can be cold and they can be static. Territories are marked out and fortified, patrolled with suspicion. Small incursions are met with disproportionate response, to dispel any idea of rapprochement and common cause. Watchful eyes are sensitive to the smallest affronts.

In one organisation we worked with, one particular archetype came through in all six of the anecdote sessions we held with a wide variety of staff: the “Monster” was a mid level seasoned employee, who discouraged any attempt to draw her into collaboration by snarling so fiercely and being so nasty on the first innocent approach, that she would never be bothered again.

We can say that this is just bad behaviour, that it can be cured with a strong performance management system. But also in this organization we find archetypes that express extreme defensiveness associated with a very weak information infrastructure: information is gathered and hoarded just so that people can function in their jobs, but it can’t be shared because the owners are never quite sure whether it is accurate or reliable.

The competent and willing become overloaded with projects because there aren’t enough of them to go round while the “Monsters” protect themselves. Bright young things are parachuted in to resolve messy situations but don’t have the experience to understand the complexity of the business they are “fixing”. Even if they wanted to consult the more experienced members of staff (they are usually too cocky for this) they have too many “monsters” and hoarders to contend with to make consultation easy so they plan badly, implement even worse, and get everybody into an even deeper s***hole.

Within departments and workgroups, you can work out a rough modus operandi. But for anything that goes across departments the inertia seems almost unbreakable. For anything that involves coordination, more and more micro decisions are elevated higher and higher in the hierarchy for resolution, because the staff members at the level where the problem arises are starved of information and authority and cannot resolve the situations themselves.

In consequence, senior staff become decision bottlenecks and their time and attention is therefore rationed for them by their underlings. The game shifts, and from mid-level down in the organization, everyone is trying to second guess how the next level up will interpret any given situation, so that they can present their case in a way that will get an immediate “yes”. Everything goes into a bizarre slow motion as work is multiplied by the guess-work required to get the simplest cross-functional tasks done. Politics and patronage, not their own direct knowledge of the business, determine which issues and which information gets elevated to the attention of the senior management team.

Suddenly it seems to make sense to build strong defences against anything cross-divisional, and even to build aggression-defences against anything that will draw you into the political game of guess-work, and keep you away from your “real” work.

The environment degrades into low-level guerilla warfare, a kind of persistent war of resistance where there is no conquering invader, interspersed with periodic crises when the business suffers major damage as a result of its incapacity to act as a coherent whole.

We failed here too. Although we took the assignment on the condition that we would involve the senior management team, we never saw them. We got some of their deputies for a couple of days, and were lucky in that. I was struck by how clearly the managers we did involve saw the issues they faced, and how clearly and consistently they wanted specific practical decisions to go to the senior management team.

It went nowhere, because the sponsors of the project didn’t see it the same way. They were guessing that if they raised the spectre I have described at senior management level, it would be immediately suppressed as too big a monster to deal with. They didn’t want to test that guess. So they rolled out an action plan for an intranet revamp and some cosmetic communities of practice. The senior managers never saw the face that looked out at them through the archetypes. And even if they had, what could they have done?

How does one break through such a deadlock? How long does it take before institutionalized static violence like this starts to crumble? Is it really acts of individual courage and leadership? Or is it the accumulated suffering of years of self-abuse (this is what it is, surely), until the culture has simply had enough of it, the mood shifts, and turns from ice to water in an instant? Or both?

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