Are You Enabling Organizational Insanity?
It is impossible to “square a circle,” which makes this phrase an apt metaphor for what many organizations are trying to do now. That is, they continue to conduct business the way they’ve done it in the past in spite of the fact that the environment has changed dramatically in the last few years. Although everything about the “game” has changed – e.g., the playing field, the rules, the boundaries, the players, the equipment, the funding – many leaders act as though continuing to send in the same players and use the same playbook will result in similar or better outcomes as in years past. It won’t happen. To the contrary: doing the same thing over and over while hoping for different outcomes is a form of organizational insanity.
One reason why this insanity flourishes is that the assumptions underlying formerly successful strategy and tactics are no longer valid – i.e., they have expiration dates. Leaders take actions and make decisions based on assumptions that they or their predecessors formulated. The problem is that once made, assumptions tend to become set in concrete, never again to be reviewed. The failure to examine the bases on which programs, processes, and systems were developed and decisions were made is causing problems now, as assumptions that once served organizations well are not valid any longer.
“We’ve always done it this way” is a mantra that, if accepted as a justification to continue the status quo despite evidence to the contrary that it isn’t working, will be the death knoll of an organization. The question should be, “Why are we doing it this way?” Though some assumptions do stand the test of time, the automatic acceptance of past practices does not serve organizations well, and it needs to stop. Yet taking this step is not as simple as it sounds; there are all kinds of reasons why people don’t want to question underlying assumptions – e.g., they don’t want to rock the boat, or create work for themselves, or perhaps make someone mad, or stand out in the crowd, or look stupid, or be told they are wrong, or have to do things differently – so they don’t. Leaders who expect to achieve organizational goals while continuing to rely on assumptions that no longer are viable are delusional. And continuing such behavior will kill any chance of organizational success.
One of the indicators of outdated assumptions is a concept that I call “contextual misalignment.” That is, behaviors and things that work well in one environment or situation are dysfunctional in another. For example, in the fire service, members are trained to have a very strong task orientation because that’s what helps to keep them and the public safe during emergencies. Yet that task orientation doesn’t always serve the organization well back in the stations and offices because it doesn’t lend itself easily to taking the “big picture” point of view necessary to develop and implement a strategy for overall direction and effectiveness. The use of such a practice in both environments is an example of how insidious assumptions can be for any organization: some are such a part of the DNA of the culture that leaders don’t realize that they exist. Consequently, they are hard to identify and assess for on-going relevance.
The changes caused by the economic downturn of the last few years make now an ideal time to identify, examine, and assess the assumptions underlying your organization. Release those that no longer make sense and that serve as obstacles to success. Retaining only those assumptions that support that success will go a long way toward restoring the organization’s – and your own – sanity.
Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.
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