Leaders of small businesses have no trouble thinking specifically about their business, its goals and the resources and processes required to reach the goals. If they don’t they ?go broke? very quickly. Why is it then that in big organisations that managers of even small departments get lost in a fog of generalities?
How do we know when an organisation is lost in the fog? The symptoms to watch for include the use of management phrases which make no sense, the inability to confront real problems and the inability to grasp real opportunities.
To some readers it may seem trite to think of overuse of management phrases and management models as being a symptom of not thinking seriously enough about the organisation. My experience tells me otherwise. The most popular phrase I know of in Australian senior management circles now is ?going forward?. If they could really go backward in time then they would not need to run their organisation to make billions.
The phrase adds nothing to what they are saying and lacks the specificity of next quarter or next year or within three years. It is a popular term precisely because it lacks specificity. It does not force leaders to pinpoint a time by which they expect and event to happen.
Other examples of behaviour of the same genre are fascination with management fads. The growth in management fads and consultant tools has been exponential since the 1960s. Has management of organisations become exponentially complex?
My view is that the answer is no. People in my profession have tried to make it more complex with single point solutions for every organisational ill that there is. Business however, in both the public and private sectors is still about matching your capabilities to meet or exceed customer and stakeholder expectations.
Leaders need to build organisations who understand who their customers are, who their stakeholders are, what the expectations of each are and how to build the capability to meet or exceed those expectations.
In larger organisations the responsibilities for doing this are delegated. Business controls are put in place then to make sure that the responsibility is accepted by subordinates and accountability accepted by leaders. Business is more complex, but not exponentially so. The vast majority of consultant tools are therefore redundant once a few are used to help communicate issues and insights.
The inability to confront real problems stems from two aspects. One is the inability of organisations to think specifically about its customers, stakeholders, goals and capabilities. The other is an inability to communicate. The former is related to the previous discussion. The latter is another subject altogether.
Inability to communicate the real problems stems from one or more of four organisational issues.
The first is the inability to view a problem other than from within the frame it has always been viewed. People who view problems from a different frame of reference are regarded as mavericks.
The second is an inability to communicate to people with different thinking styles and backgrounds. This is a skill problem.
The third is an unwillingness to communicate bad news.
The fourth and the most unrecognised whilst being equally debilitating, is the communication by PowerPoint syndrome that afflicts so many organisations. Reports are no longer written or read. Discussions are rarely actually had. The organisation’s world is revolves around ?The Presentation?. People spend inordinate hours developing the presentation to get an acceptable message across rather than just telling it like it is.
Recipients of these ?Presentations? are equally focussed on where ?The Presentation? fails to be compelling, to critique the presenter, rather than listen to the message, question for improving clarity and critiquing the suggestions for action.
The usual manifestation for me of a failure to grasp opportunities is in the stated notion of ?playing devils advocate?. People who agree that a goal is desirable and of high priority and then set about articulating why the strategy or the actions planned are not sufficient to reach the goal, are in my opinion, lazy.
They do it not to force some critical thinking on a group, but to make a personal point. They have completed only half of the work. The barriers to success are clearly articulated. What they need to do is to find ways to remove or negate the impact of the barriers. They need to articulate their thoughts as what needs to be done to be successful.
Getting lost in a fog of generalities is symptomatic of leaders who lack the ?helicopter quality? to deal with the specifics in the context of the generalities of the business. When they fail as they often do, they fail without knowing why. Those who do master the specifics may also fail. However, at least they know why and learn from their mistakes, rather than repeating them.