26 January 2010 • 10:51 am

Inevitable Lurches

The last couple of weeks have seen a coincidence of two sudden, massive, and mostly unexpected lurches. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that has devastated Haiti is human tragedy on a scale rarely seen (until one recalls the 2004 Asian tsunami), and was certainly not anticipated by the island’s millions of residents. Nearly as unanticipated was the lurch in the U.S. political landscape, marked by the GOP’s victory in the special election in Massachusetts and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn limits on corporate participation in election campaigns. I am closely following the aftermath of both Haiti and U.S. politics, since the response to unanticipated change reveals much about the health of the organizations involved.

(I write of Haiti and U.S. politics together only to illustrate a point, and not to imply any comparison between these events. I hope that you will join me and millions of others who have already contributed to one of the many organizations leading Haiti’s earthquake relief efforts.)

In my experience, organizational preparedness for major, unexpected changes varies widely. Most organizations pay lip service, with little more than rueful acknowledgement of the possibility of disruption. Some develop ‘business continuity’ plans, which are targeted at sustaining key assets and processes, like computer systems and networks, in the event of catastrophe. Far fewer have a comprehensive, robust capability to weather the literal and figurative storms of unknown and unexpected events. The most effective organizations prepare not for specific disasters, but with a well-tested process for making effective strategic and tactical decisions in the face of sudden, significant, unexpected change.

Every organization’s strategy is the result of its mission, its internal capabilities, and its external environment. Over time, mission and capability are likely to evolve to reflect the changing realities of the external environment. The normal strategic planning process, when properly executed, entails continuous monitoring of environment and management of capability and strategy itself. Sudden change in the external environment requires rapid and confident recalibration of the strategy. The decision making process is the same, only the time scale is different.

The difficulty with which most organizations mange and execute strategy means that they are ill-equipped to handle the inevitable lurches. Fingers are pointed, emotions flare, poor decisions are made, and must be made again, efforts are wasted, and chaos reigns. By contrast, healthy organizations quickly pick themselves up, look around to understand the new realities, quickly make well-informed decisions, and get on with the urgent tasks at hand.

How will your organization handle the next lurch?

12 November 2009 • 7:00 am

The Strategy-Focused Organization Concept is Still Robust

read this book

read this book

Most popular ideas in the domain of organizational management have a limited shelf-life. Those that gain widespread attention usually do so on the strength of a published work. My bookshelves are filled with titles that in their time, were purported to be the next ‘big idea’ in management, but have since faded into relative obscurity. This pattern is as much a function of the audience for the ideas as the ideas themselves; executives and managers crave the easy answers and magical insights that are promised by these works. So when an idea remains relevant and applicable for more than a few years, it stands out. 

Of course, balanced scorecard has been an exceptionally durable concept. The idea of a scorecard (a collection of measures) as a tool for management has been around for decades, and is thought to have originated at General Electric during the 1950s. Kaplan and Norton elaborated the idea of a scorecard as a tool for strategic management beginning with their first Harvard Business Review articles on the topic in 1992 and 1993, and their book The Balanced Scorecard in 1996. The BSC articles and original book were extremely popular, and remain so today.But I never recommend Kaplan and Norton’s first BSC book to anyone embarking on a journey of strategic management.

5 November 2009 • 7:00 am

On Multitasking

Board-spinning-platesA brief Talk of the Town piece by Nick Paumgarten in this week’s New Yorker has finally shaken me out of my lengthy unplanned hiatus from the Tenacious Blog (a combination of an early October speaking gig followed by an extended trip to my alternative universe in the tropics had conspired to keep me from writing for several weeks now). For those of you who have waited patiently for my return, much gratitude for your loyalty. I’ll be trying to write regularly again, but am making no promises.

The New Yorker piece begins with a recollection of the news item from a few weeks ago, in which two Northwest Airlines pilots overshot their destination (Minneapolis) by over a hundred miles (the pilots claim they were engrossed in a complex work scheduling program on their laptop computers), then goes on to comment on the effect of multi-tasking on our performance. According to Paumgarten:

Studies have shown that multitasking, even of the law-abiding kind, doesn’t work. You just perform each task less efficiently. Marshall McLuhan predicted that technology would sharpen our senses, but, instead, as the writer Michael Bugeja said last week, it seems to split them. (A few years ago, Bugeja, with a colleague, started writing an article called “Media Saturation Kills,” but he got distracted by another deadline and never finished it.)


28 September 2009 • 7:00 am

The Deliberate Organization

As a mediocre writer and crossword puzzle addict, I am continually amazed at the richness of the English language, and yet surprised at the number of words serving double- or triple-duty; words carrying the weight of multiple meanings. One of my favorites examples is the word sanction, which can either mean a penalty for a violation of law, or explicit permission for some action. Homophonic antonyms, such as raise and raze (e.g. to put up or take down a building) are also especially amusing.

One such word I find myself using often in my writings here is deliberate. Both its verb and adjective meanings (which are sometimes pronounced differently) powerfully apply to our interest in strategy, change, and organizational leadership. Let’s take a closer look.


25 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Four Reasons NOT to Conduct an Employee Survey

Employee surveys are useful tools for understanding the beliefs, attitudes and opinions of an organization as a whole.  Surveys are commonly used in pursuit of change to discover and understand organizational culture, resistance, morale, and a host of other characteristics that can shine the light on opportunities for improvement.

However, not all surveys will improve the situation.  The following are four warning signs that conducting a survey may do more harm than good.


14 September 2009 • 7:00 am

At Loggerheads

Loggerhead turtle, about one meter long

Loggerhead turtle, about one meter long

I don’t remember exactly when, how, or even why I first became enamored with turtles and tortoises. It’s probably been at least 25 years since I bought my first carved wooden turtle, and my collection of small handmade keepsake turtles grows by one or two every time my wife and I travel together. I’ve probably got over 50 of them now. But it’s less than an obsession for me, and I don’t have any live turtles as pets.

A video on Facebook caught my eye a couple of weeks ago. Shot at night in infrared light on Big Pine Key near our second home in Key West, Florida, it shows a “boil” – the nearly all-at-once hatching of baby loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) and their immediate and frantic scramble to the sea. The first few minutes after hatching are especially perilous for the little guys (who would easily fit in the palm of your hand) – they rely on star- and moon-light glinting off the ocean’s edge to find their way to the water before seabirds and other predators pick off these tasty morsels. Human development has threatened the loggerhead in multiple ways, including the presence of artificial light at nesting areas causing the hatchlings to lose their way to the ocean, along with entanglement in fishing lines and nets.


6 August 2009 • 7:00 am

How to Get Beyond Leadership Buy-in

It almost goes without saying that an organizational change initiative without proper levels of leadership support is doomed to fail. Perhaps the project will be paid lip service, but it will ultimately either be ignored into oblivion or cut short of its potential with one drop of the axe.

Not only do organizational leaders have the power to make or break your project on their own, but it is impossible to bypass them to change the organization below. Individuals experiencing change will look to those in power for confirmation that they are committed to the new way of doing things. It is under intense scrutiny that leaders are watched to see if their actions match their intentions. If not, the change initiative will be dismissed as “flavor of the month” and not taken seriously.

Amid all this doom and gloom, there is a bright side. You don’t have to settle for the level of leadership support you currently have. As fellow human beings, leaders are capable of being informed and influenced.

Take the following steps to determine how to best garner the support of the most influential people in your organization. more

30 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Hunkering Down, or Seizing the Day?

Newborn gazelle hunkering down for safety, Serengeti, Tanzania

Newborn gazelle hunkering down for safety, Serengeti, Tanzania (© Erika Bloom)

Reading blogs, scanning headlines, and staying in touch with old friends, it seems to me that right now there is a lot of hunkering down going on. Hunkering down, like dodging bullets and any port in the storm are vivid metaphors for the actions of people when there is danger about. During a global recession, individuals naturally think about protecting themselves and their families from the risk of unemployment, investment failure, and other threatening stuff.

Organizational behavior is a ‘soft’ science that begins with the premise that organizations exhibit collective behaviors. This too is natural. Fish and birds move in unison. Bees, ants, and other insects live in highly-ordered societies that act in concert. Wolves hunt in packs. Evolutionary biologists explain these behaviors as adaptations not just for the survival of the group, but the survival of the species.


28 July 2009 • 7:00 am


Everyone makes mistakes – we often say that ‘to err is human, to forgive divine.’ And despite occasional assertions to the contrary, our leaders are in fact human. So our leaders have made mistakes, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The consequences of our leaders’ mistakes are usually greater than the mistakes of those led; through their decisions and actions, leaders cause many others to do things. This is the definition of leadership. In meritocracies, individuals rise to leadership roles because they are viewed as capable and skillful, and are therefore expected to make good decisions for the organizations they lead. But we also say that ‘mistakes will happen.’


16 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Irrational Side of Change Management – Part 3 of 3

In Parts One and Two of this series of three posts, I introduced an article published recently in the McKinsey Quarterly entitled The Irrational Side of Change Management, and summarized their first seven of nine lessons about why common sense hasn’t helped improve the success rate of change. If you didn’t read the first post, please start there.

Condition IV: Capability Building

The skills of the workforce and the capabilities of the organization must change to support the change agenda.

Lesson 8: Don’t overlook employees’ beliefs when driving behavior change

McKinsey idea: Requiring behavior changes without understanding what employees believe may not have the desired effect. Behavior stems from personal beliefs, and without understanding those beliefs, mandated behaviors may run counter to employees’ self-perception.

Tenacious Tortoise comment: McKinsey’s example of bankers becoming uncomfortable with becoming salespeople is not convincingly applied in the general case. But it is easy to see that simply telling employees to do something they otherwise wouldn’t do will have less effect than patiently creating an understanding of why the new behavior is desired and understanding and addressing any discomfort that the new behavior creates.