Lessons unlearned

Many of the challenges of bringing about change in organisations are the same, but starting at a new organisation and encountering things again which I thought were old problems, long since solved, the last time I saw them reminds me that while there will always be someone ahead of you, there will also probably always be someone behind you.

When you start at a new place, and you are focused on delivering change, you start to look for the things which are going to cause you problems straight away.  In some places, it is resources – getting the budget, and the people, to realistically do what is required of you.  In other places, it’s that you are a captive organisation – an organisational unit belonging to another, far larger or more powerful organisation, and unless your priority becomes their priority, making change happen is extremely hard indeed.  In some places the enemy is the process.  In some, it is the lack of process.  Surprisingly often, a challenge will be something I think of as “Decision Weakness”.

Decision Weakness is a combination of a couple of factors.  The most obvious one for change leaders is: the inability of the (nominally) appropriately empowered leaders to make decisions.  This surfaces in a number of different ways, but a very common one is the desire to ship off the decision to a number of other “leaders”.  Trying to pin someone suffering from decision weakness down to making a decision without escalating it so far up the tree in a given organisation that you can never get that higher echelon’s time is frustrating and often fruitless.  This results in a waste of more senior people’s time and an astonishing proportion of the delay in getting changes delivered, or even more so in getting them stopped when their business case no longer holds water.

Decision Weakness also manifests in another way.  I’ve often referred to it as “insincere signoff.”  The person making the decision has a momentary rush of blood to the head, and actually agrees to something.  Be careful that you have this recorded in some unambiguous manner, because what will happen later – either as a result of buyer’s remorse, or as a result of a strangely inaccurate memory – is the denial of the decision by the decision maker.  This insidious problem can be very damaging to change leaders – typically more so to project managers, whose decisions are nearly always provided by external resources – but they can bite programme managers and directors when the decision weakness is far enough up the chain; or when for instance the host organisation’s operational leadership agree, then later disagree, to host the organisation and change output created by the programme.

Frustration sets in all around with Decision Weakness.  Those more junior see the decisions being made, then unmade; or stagnation setting in.  They quite rightly feel indignant that their efforts are not being allowed to be successful or proceed because of the failure of someone more senior – often quite a lot more senior – and if they aren’t fit to take these decisions, why are they in the more senior role?  This is a question I often have a lot of sympathy with.  If you can’t deal with the increased responsibility, don’t seek it, don’t let it be thrust upon you, or at least have the backbone to delegate to someone who can, and defend that position.  It also causes frustration in more senior – often Cxx level – executives, who have a view that change should happen, they want it to happen, and why isn’t it happening?

The organisations I’ve seen this most prevalent in are the ones where there are both too many levels of management, and too many managers.  This Decision Weakness stifles innovation; slows all kinds of change; kills agility; wastes a great deal of effort – both financially, but also precious focus, which large organisations already find it difficult to muster; and it drives good, agile, delivery-focused people out of the organisation to somewhere where they can get things done – compounding and accelerating the issue.

Decision Weakness.  It’s a bad thing.

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