No leader in their right mind would deliberately take their company on a suicide mission. No one would initiate projects, programmes or activities that would foul up their organisation’s culture, operations or results. Or agree to major commitments that would be a deadweight on performance. Or assign valuable people to tasks they never should have been doing. Or waste their own time and energy confusing and demotivating their people. Or wear themselves out trying to drive an agenda that was full of flaws.
Or would they?
More often than they know it, executives are their own worst enemies. Their good intentions cause endless trouble for themselves and their firms. They create the very problems that they worry about. They pour resources down the drain and wonder why they never get the results they seek. And perhaps worst of all, they never discover just how well they might have done.
Here’s what I call The Performance Paradox: In trying to improve results, managers deliberately, systematically and at considerable cost apply measures that come back to bite them in the butt by hurting performance.
If you think this is a hysterical rant with no foundation, think again. And look at how easily it happens — and why it’s so common.
Management’s cycle of self-destruction
Start with the fact that every leader wants to better yesterday’s results. Sales should go up. Costs and waste should fall. Productivity and quality should surpass previous levels. Innovation and improvement should take customer satisfaction to new heights and make it possible to capture new markets. Profits should rise.
Wanting all this, the first question is, “Why haven’t we got it?” So introspection and diagnosis begins. And inevitably — between comments about fickle customers, competitors playing foul, IT problems, a lack of resources and so on — answers like these pop up:
- “Our strategy’s not working — we need a new vision, mission and values”
- “Our culture is wrong, so we need to change it”
- “There’s no teamwork — our people operate in silos”
- “They’re disengaged”
- “We have a skills shortage, so everything is up to the top team”
The second question is, “What should we do?” And the fixes seem obvious:
- Get a new vision, mission and values (preferably through a companywide conversation)
- Change the culture
- Teach people change management and involve them in change management projects
- Start some teambuilding
- Become “customer-centric” by making speeches, running workshops for all staff and putting up some posters
- Motivate the people — get a motivational speaker for the company conference, improve the canteen food, spruce up the place, set up coffee bars in open spaces, put happy faces on all screensavers, introduce “casual Fridays”
- Have HR find a new performance management process
- Make empowerment a way of life — spread the word about “servant leadership”, get an expert on “ubuntu” or offer some courses on personal branding and self-actualisation.
But are these the right fixes?
Chances are, definitely not. The management field is abuzz with nonsense. Too many vendors peddle one-size-fits-all panaceas. Flaky fads and unproven “solutions” are a dime a dozen. There are more tools than can ever be understood or used — many of them utterly worthless. And for every one of them there’s sure to be a champion, all too eager to take charge of a budget, make work and build an empire.
Besides, what appears at first sight to be an obvious problem might not be where an intervention is needed.
Take culture, for example. What exactly might be meant by the sweeping statement, “We need to change the culture”? Is culture a proxy for lousy leadership, skills gaps, a toxic climate, a dysfunctional structure, uninspiring incentives, weak systems, inadequate performance reviews, poor communication or some other factor? And if one or more of these is the real problem, isn’t that where attention should be aimed?
Or take another favourite — team building — trotted out as the answer to almost all corporate ills. Is teamwork really a problem, and if so, why? Could it be that no one knows where “the hill” is, so they’re all picking their own? Do they understand the company’s priorities? Are roles and responsibilities clear, and do people know what to expect from others? Are the right people in the right jobs? Are there enough meetings, are they about the right things, do they include the right people and are they well managed?
Follow a poor diagnosis with inappropriate treatment — or treatment you don’t know how to apply — and it’s all downhill from there. In no time, you’re in a doom loop. The “solutions” that looked so smart either cause whatever problems might exist to become even more entrenched, or quickly lead to others. Suddenly, there’s a flurry of new activities all over the place and people are bogged down under their weight. Complexity increases, confusion mounts and frustration grows.
But hey — you’re busy, busy, busy! You’re being proactive! You’re taking action!
All of which costs money and distracts people from what they should be focused on. The same old problems keep coming up in meeting after meeting. And again and again, the same solutions are offered: work harder at the initiatives that aren’t working, or get another one … or a bunch more. Or make a video and some T-shirts to rally the troops and drive the message home. Or send some of the team to a course. Or … whatever.
So how do you avoid this cycle of self-destruction?
- Face reality. Get your diagnosis right. Separate facts from mere opinions. Be alert to how politics, agendas and emotions colour things, and don’t let them get in the way or distort your views.
- Be especially wary of too quickly settling on the “vision, mission and values” issue, trying to change the culture, or teambuilding or “empowerment” projects.
- Don’t buy any initiative with a funny name. Avoid tools you don’t understand. Beware of hucksters selling quick-fixes, or wielding a hammer and treating everything as a nail.
- Take an inventory of projects already under way. What is essential (and why)? What’s showing progress? What’s not working, or simply lurking on someone’s desk? Stuff piles up. The old suffocates the new. You can’t do everything. So agree what you’ll stop doing to make way for what’s next. And chuck out whatever you can (which probably means more than you thought!) as fast as you can.
- Don’t launch anything new until you’re satisfied that what was on the agenda has been dealt with or no longer matters. When you do start something, be reasonably sure you can see it through to the end. Then, stick to what you set out to do. Don’t chop and change. Your people are watching. They’re cynical and skeptical.
- Agree on a very short to-do list with tight timelines and clarity about who will do what. Better to do a few things well than a lot badly. Better to act fast and learn quickly than to keep the wheels spinning while you plan for perfection.
- Clarify how you’ll communicate what’s going to happen next — and communicate like crazy.