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How to battle organizational sclerosis!

“We really don’t understand it all, and so we aren’t going to do anything!”

A few years ago, when I was the closing speaker for the Swiss Innovation Forum in Zurich, I made the observation that many  “organizations fail, because their have failure engrained in their corporate culture!”

Do you?

It can be difficult to try to be innovative in many organizations. Many people with an innovation-oriented mindset often find their enthusiasm stymied when they approach senior management with an initiative. And when their effort is turned back, it can extremely frustrating!

One of the most typical situations today in which we are seeing innovation-dead-in-its-tracks involves the many initiatives that people are pursuing with social networks and/or mobile applications. They know that we live in transformative times in which major changes are occurring with branding, production promotion, customer relationships and just about everything else!

So they set off to build a sophisticated customer-oriented Facebook initiative; they roll out a prototype mobile iPhone app; or they simply get a very basic Twitter feed happening that includes a stream of useful news updates that customers might actually appreciate.

Enthusiastic as heck, they take their project to the senior management team — and its’ rejected, with a litany of reasons as to why the organization just isn’t ready to deal with their new ideas right now.

Any number of reasons can be given; each and every one of them is indicative of the fact that a sort of organizational sclerosis has set in, that clogs up the ability of the organization to deal with anything new. Consider the attitudes that you might encounter if you are trying to get something happening:

  • we don’t understand it, so we don’t think we need to do it
  • it’s too easy to not confront the tough issues
  • we are too busy fighting fires right now!
  • we don’t have the skill sets to deal with this. That’s a weak excuse
  • we haven’t thought about this in our strategic planning process
  • we have really spent a lot of time thinking about what comes next
  • we don’t have a budget for that!
  • what we’ve been doing all along is perfectly ok, isn’t it?
  • there’s so much going on, and we don’t know where it might fit in terms of priorities!
  • it’s too far ahead of its time!

Of course, it’s easy to take this wall of negativity and step back from the project and curb your enthusiasm — and give up! Here’s a clip from my keynote in Zurich in which I talk about the challenges you might face.

But real innovators don’t give up! They work to address the organizational sclerosis that might be in place. What you should do  is confront these excuses head on: there are a variety of different reactions depending on the different excuses that are used:

  • if they don’t understand it, educate them! This might involve building a better business case for the initiative; bringing them up to date on the key business drviers and trends that require some bold steps and dramatic change.
  • help them that those who tackle the tough issues usually win. This is a good time to put into perspective the concept of accelerating change. You need to make sure that the leadership team understands that everything around us today is changing faster than ever before, and will continue to do so: business models, methods of customer interaction, new forms of competition. Business today is all about continually confronting a flood of tough issues; we should be bulking up our capabilities to deal with a world of incessant change.
  • if the organization is always in fire-fighting mode, change the agenda. Maybe they won’t be fighting as as many fires over the long term if they have a clear view of the future, and have a strategy that aligns to that future. So rather than asking, “whoah, where’d that come from,” they’re asking “ok, what comes next, and what do we need to do about it?
  • skill sets don’t give us the capability: That’s a weak excuse: if there are shortfalls in certain key skills to deal with current business realities, deal with it and fix it fast. Ensure that you work with HR to undertake a skills inventory with respect to the area you are trying to innovate within, and work to plug the holes.
  • if it’s not part of the strategic planning process, make it part of it. Every organizations has multiple processes in which issues and activities rise to the top because they’ve been idenitified as fitting within the overall strategic plan. If yours isn’t part of the plan, work to get it there; and again, this comes through education, a clear business case, as well as internal discussions with those who are involved with and shape the strategic planning process.
  • get people thinking about what comes next: Does the organization have a regular series of forward looking leadership meetings? Does it take the time to assess the trends which might impact it on a 1, 2, 5 and 10 year basis? Is it busy looking at we have really spent a lot of time thinking about what comes next
  • we don’t have a budget for that! Following the process of getting the initiative into the strategic plan will help to lead to the next step: getting the project properly approved and funded within the overall budget process for the organization. There’s a process for budgeting — and you have to be intimately involved in and respect the process.
  • make it clear that it isn’t ok to keep doing the same thing that has been done in the past. You’ve got to clearly articulate the new threats the organizations faces and the opportunities that it can pursue as a result of ongoing change.
  • there’s so much going on, and we don’t know where it might fit in terms of priorities! This is a tricky one, because in this type of situation, its pretty well certain that there is some weak management in place who doesn’t know how to set a clear action plan that the team must follow. Best bet is to address the other issues on the list, and work to put in place a clear business and strategic plan for your initiative, with sound business reasoning as to why it needs to be done.
  • it’s too far ahead of its time! Frame the future to the organization this way: do we want to always be fast followers, or do we truly want to be market leaders?

In Zurich,I noted on stage that “we develop corporate cultures that stifle — that kill our ability to try to do anything new…..” That’s what you’ve got to work to avoid — it’s not easy to do — but absolutely necessary!

One Response to “How to battle organizational sclerosis!”

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