Those who have worked with me, even for a short period of time, know that I am a big fan of Ayn Rand and objectivism in general, and I use the terms Relentlessly-Objective-Reality (ROR) and Relentless Objectivity to define my personal, as well as the Ideasphere approach of defining any problem we work on, and structuring the search for solutions to it. Even though it can be painful at times, and requires extra effort from all of us to engage in dialogue and hold Crucial Conversations rather than debates and witch-hunts, that practice is what makes the work we do at Ideasphere so effective in the long run. Relentless objectivity enables any executive, interim or permanent, to see what current reality is before the start of an operationally oriented transformation or corporate renewal project, and to develop realistic plans to deal with it. It also ensures that actions and strategies are meaningful and will produce the desired results.
Unfortunately relentless objectivity is neither easy, nor generally practiced (kinda-like common sense). Over the years I have been surprised by unintended consequences that were a result of a team missing a key reality, or deploying a “going through the motions” solution that sounded good but did not work. Teams that missed something that lurked in the background during the initial phase of a project, that should have been obvious, or an failing to conduct an objective assessment of the impact of a proposed solution that could have prevented an ineffective solution being deployed. Even though some teams eventually recover, their transformation takes longer, or costs more than it should. Even though the kinds of projects we work with are high risk/high reward projects, this situation is not unique to transformational projects. Some research indicates that more than half of strategic projects fail to deliver on their promises. Even more depressing is the acknowledgment by two thirds of senior executives participating in a McKinsey survey of executives from around the world, that their organizations rarely succeeded in achieving major change objectives. Since making promises to clients and keeping them is what pays the bills around our office, avoiding becoming a part of that statistic has been one of our major goals. So in the process of continually improving the way we work, I have kept a running list of projects where I’ve seen bad things happened, and kept looking for answers to the question “What caused that?”.
So, with apologies for the bad Star Trek analogies, I think there are four wormholes that transport a team from the Relentlessly Objective Reality (ROR) universe to one of the four Fake Abstract Reality (FAR) worlds. Because these universes are parallel (or at least that’s a common view), a transformation team can be operating in one, or more, of those environments at any given time. Frankly, I’ve seen at least one team operating in all four simultaneously. So, based on my experience, here are the Four FAR worlds and the wormholes that lead teams there:
1) The Content Free world through the Executive Arrogance wormhole
2) The Lake Wobegone world through the Cognitive Dissonance wormhole
3) The Borg world through the Groupthink wormhole, and
4) The Cardassian world through the Confirmation Bias worm-hole
The Unconsciously Incompetent Worm-hole
Being turn-around and corporate renewal experts requires the Ideasphere partners to be comfortable and knowledgeable in many fields. Since most of us have been C-Level executives before, we are all comfortable to various degrees with many areas of business management. Starting with General Management, Executive Leadership, Finance, Human Capital Management, Information Technology, Business Law, Marketing and Sales, Intellectual Property Laws, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, etc we can work our way through quite a few layers of uncovering reality. Even if each of us individually may not have the answers, generally as a group we can get good coverage on most issues. But here is the rub; As good as we, or the permanent executives working with our team or running a company, may be, only true Subject Matter Experts can see all the layers and their inter-dependencies in their particular area. The rest of us don’t know what we don’t know (unconsciously incompetent). Relentless objectivity requires an acknowledgment that Subject Matter Expertise matters, and it matters a lot. It requires an understanding that, to paraphrase Einstein, problems should be reduced to their simplest explanation but no less.
It is quite disappointing when we ask for a particular SME to join an executive team working on a problem, only to be told the management team knows everything they need to, the SME is not at the “right management level”, he is “not easy to work with”, or she is “too technical.” What nonsense! Reading a one page memo may be a good way to describe the problem, but in today’s complex world, if the solution can be developed and described in a one page memo, it’s not strategic enough to command an executive team’s attention. And having worked in the field fifteen years ago is not a guarantee the executive team knows how the world functions today.
This is a lesson I learned observing an executive team working on understanding declining sales because of customer dissatisfaction with a product’s features compared to a competitor’s. Working in the executive suites, and after conducting some superficial interviews with front line folks, they assessed the challenge to be “lack of resources for the product development team.” So they allocated more resources to the marketing department and the product development team, and waited for the next release that would cure it all. When it came, the customer response was even more negative and sales plummeted along with the leading market share position. What happened? The chief designer of the product was a real gear head who spoke in technical jargon and had a brush personality. The executive team, some of them having risen from the technical ranks and pretending to be experts in the technology, spent most of their time with the Chief Marketing Officer understanding the challenges of the product development team. By not actively engaging and talking with the product’s architect and designer, or the actual software development team in India, they missed the fact there were core technology limitations to their product. This executive team had transported itself to the Content Free world. Giving the product development team a budget for more resources to “develop more features faster” could not have solved the underlying problem, no matter what features the product development team dreamed up. Understanding that the product was based on core technology that did not support the features the competitive product had, would have driven a different type of discussion and a conclusion on the actions and investment required to fix the problem. After the CEO asked us to engage, and we conducted a deep dive into the technology behind the product line, the decision was made to abandon development and buy the competitor.
More to follow on the other three….