Breaking Down Management Orthodoxies

Between the idea and the reality

Between the motion and  the act

Falls the Shadow

  (T.S Eliot, The Hollow Men)

Okay, this may describe many of us but, more to the point, it describes the state of many organizations (associations included), immobilized by outdated modes of thinking and stuck in the status quo. Moving from intent to execution and from promise to delivery is crossing the deepest chasm there is.  And rigid, hierarchical, organizations with set ways for doing things and looking at the world, make the divide almost impossible to bridge.  This is why, while most association leaders agree that dramatic change is needed and put qualities such as flexibility, “nimbleness” and member/customer centricity high on their list, they limit innovation to plans, products or isolated initiatives while the cumbersome, inflexible and slow bureaucratic models remain intact.

And this is my point: to truly innovate and lead an organization’s to a next phase we need leaders who can “unshackle” their organizations from the orthodoxies of the industrial, product-driven, hierarchical models of the past; leaders who are able to move from talking about change to doing things differently. This means willingness to begin challenging and replacing/reinventing the basic components of your core business– from governance, to inside-out product development, culture, roles and responsibilities; measures of success. Yet, I don’t hear such objectives as the centerpiece of leaders’ priorities.

Isn’t it time to move beyond theories and scenarios about the future of associations and figure out how to transition from talking the talk to walking the walk? 

According to Gary Hamel, bureaucracies simply lack the most fundamental capabilities for competing in today’s markets:

“To beat back the forces of commoditization, a company must be able to deliver the kind of unique customer value that can only be created by employees who bring a full measure of their initiative, imagination, and zeal to work every day...The problem is, there’s little room in bureaucratic organizations for passion, ingenuity, and self-direction. The machinery of bureaucracy was invented in an age when human beings were seen as little more than semi programmable robots. Bureaucracy puts an upper limit on what individuals are allowed to bring to their jobs. If you want to build an organization that unshackles the human spirit, you’re going to need some decidedly unbureaucratic management principles.”

The need to shift from product-driven, inside-out bureaucracies to customer-centered, responsive models, and the steps for achieving them, are the topics of my book, The Demand Perspective: Leading from the Outside-In.  In his article quoted above, Hamel brings several examples of success achieved by challenging sacrosanct orthodoxies, for example:

  • Hierarchy; narrow scope of authority and responsibility; roles defined by tasks and functions rather than outcomes. Hamel points to the example of Toyota: “Unlike its Western rivals, Toyota has long believed that first-line employees can be more than cogs in a soulless manufacturing machine; they can be problem solvers, innovators, and change agents. While American companies relied on staff experts to come up with process improvements, Toyota gave every employee the skills, the tools, and the permission to solve problems as they arose and to head off new problems before they occurred. ...It was only after American carmakers had exhausted every other explanation for Toyota’s success—an undervalued yen, a docile workforce, Japanese culture, superior automation—that they were finally able to admit that Toyota’s real advantage was its ability to harness the intellect of “ordinary” employees.”
  • Top down strategic planning and product development. “Is there any reason to believe we can challenge this well-entrenched orthodoxy?” asks Hamel. “Sure. Look at Google. Its top team doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to cook up grand strategies. Instead, it works to create an environment that spawns lots of “Googlettes:“ small, grassroots projects that may one day grow into valuable new products and services...The company organizes much of its workforce into small, project-focused teams with only a modicum of supervision… but with a lot of lateral communication and intramural competition. Its developers post their most-promising inventions on the Google Labs Web site, which gives adventurous users the chance to evaluate new concepts.”
  •  The perfect plan fallacy: this is the belief that all you have to worry about is devising a perfect vision and strategy and execution will naturally flow. Nothing could be further from the truth.  

Change does not take place through vision and strategy, no matter how grand or innovative these are, but through seemingly small things manifested in culture that have become second nature: the way people think, do things, behave, conduct daily routines and measure success. You don’t make an organization nimble and customer-centric through statements of goals, interactive websites or new initiatives, for example, but through things like:  devoting a portion of your staff meetings to sharing what each employee learned about members this past week; bring what is constantly being learned directly into product development; have staff members  spend a day with a member at his/her workplace once a month; take the product development process from inside out (staff or board committees) to outside- in (including selected members in the planning and design); pick up the phone to talk to a customer and probe into his/her reason for leaving or dropping out of a program rather than resort to form letters, etc. While you cannot affect monumental changes overnight, you can begin laying out its footprints immediately.

  • Best practice orthodoxy. In a world when boundaries are porous and innovations come about from applying a model from one industry to another, associations are trapped in the best practice conundrum—looking just to each other for best practices so that the same pool of solutions and ideas recirculates with modest variations ad infinitum. “If your goal is to escape the straitjacket of conventional management thinking,’ says Hamel in that same article, “it helps to study the practices of organizations that are decidedly unconventional. With a bit of digging, you can unearth a menagerie of exotic organizational life-forms that look nothing like the usual doyens of best practice.” To break new ground, leaders need to challenge and think outside the orthodoxies of the conventional association framework.

Who are the leaders and organizations whose innovations have challenged, even to a small degree, the orthodoxies that shape the fundamental assumptions and building blocks of the model? It is in such actions rather than declarations or lists of attributes that we can begin to decipher the future of association leadership.

I will be identifying and occasionally interviewing such leaders in a series called: Leaders’ Interviews: Breaking with Orthodoxies. Please feel free to suggest yourselves or others for me to interview and write about.

Contact me at: caraveli.anna3@gmail.


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