Director Quantum Shift Ltd.
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OD is a systems issue

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3rd Oct 2012
Director Quantum Shift Ltd.
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It's a feature about our monthly theme, but John Wenger takes a more holistic view of organisational development.
People do dumb things. Or rather, they fail to do smart things, even though it's obvious to everyone else what the right thing to do is. They also do dumb things even if they also know in their heart of hearts that it's dumb. I'm including myself in this, of course. While I like to think I'm the master of my own destiny, I know I'm not an island and am subject to the vagaries of the systems I'm a part of.
I consult with a number of people who sometimes despair at the dumb things their managers do. They throw their hands up in frustration at the dumb things their organisation asks them to do. In saying this, however, I am not leaping to the conclusion that people are dumb. There will be many factors as to why we don't do the smart thing. Upton Sinclair, for example, said, "It is difficult to get a man (or woman) to understand something, when his (or her) salary depends on his (or her) not understanding it." We endure antisocial bosses or mindless busy-work or bizarre hierarchies because in a lot of cases, making sure we pay for food on our tables and a roof over our heads takes precedence over what our hearts tell us. Sad but true, and I've been there myself.
 
"We endure antisocial bosses or mindless busy-work or bizarre hierarchies because making sure we pay for food on our tables and a roof over our heads takes precedence over what our hearts tell us."
My thoughts come out of a synthesis of some conversations I've had with clients of late. Even in the face of good hard evidence, we still do dumb things. There has been enough analysis of the global financial crisis, for instance, to indicate that letting loose the dogs of war on the floors of the world's financial exchanges was, in hindsight, dumb. By grossly unregulating global financial systems, the conditions were set for the crash to happen. Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, said recently that they should have "shouted from the rooftops" their concerns about the impending catastrophe before 2007-08. Apparently he saw something coming but was too timid to tell anyone. But now with crystal clear 20:20 hindsight, you'd expect those with the power and authority to do something about modifying those conditions to actually do something about it, wouldn't you? If they saw how everything is connected to everything else (and if they really cared), you'd expect those who can see what happened and the hardship it has created for people far and wide to adjust the regulations so that it doesn't happen again, wouldn't you?
You'd expect those with the capacity to shift the culture away from short-term greed and entitlement, to take the bull by the horns and reign in financially and socially irresponsible behaviour, crafting a system founded on greater accountability and sustainability. Wouldn't you?
I'll be pleasantly surprised if they did, but I wasn't at all astonished to hear the UK Minister of Defence saying that consumers must accept responsibility for their part in the financial crisis. Sure, it's true that the banks were not the only ones who were behaving badly. Governments did it, consumers did it. Not to excuse anyone and at the same time, not to blame anyone, but who set the conditions? Who set up a system that not only condoned, but encouraged and modelled unreasonable borrowing? Who unregulated the financial systems? Who let the dogs out?
I think if we had leaders worth their salt, they'd take a good look at themselves and realise that the responsibility and the authority now rests with them to change the rules of the game. It is dumb to blame people for playing by the rules you set for the game.
 
"If we had leaders worth their salt, they'd take a good look at themselves and realise that the responsibility and the authority now rests with them to change the rules of the game."
While managers do dumb things, they sometimes inherit dumb (read: not fit for purpose) systems. Here's where the leader's responsibility sits. When faced with a dumb system, we can either:
  • Blame someone else and say "It's just how we've always done things around here. What can you do?"
  • Pretend we see nothing and carry on doing the same dumb thing until the laws of physics hit us hard. The words "sub-prime", "derivatives", "Lehman" and "Brothers" might be springing to mind.
  • Actively set out to create a system or a culture that is fit for purpose, that is humane and that allows people to learn, do meaningful work and bring themselves to what they do.
In the same way it is dumb to blame consumers for the financial crisis, it is unfair to say your manager is being dumb when they are doing what the system is set up for them to do. To paraphrase Deming, "Every manager supposes that he (or she) is doing their best, (however), their best is embedded in the present system of management."

John Wenger is a director at Quantum Shift. This article first appeared on John's blog, which you can access here

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