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.


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.


15 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Irrational Side of Change Management – Part 2 of 3

In Part One 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 three 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. We continue here with the next four lessons.

Condition II: Role Modeling

Conventional wisdom says that leaders must visibly behave in ways that reinforce the change agenda, and enlist others with influence to support the cause of change.

Lesson 4: Leaders are biased when seeing themselves

McKinsey idea: Most senior executives understand the concept of role modeling, in the abstract. But they mistakenly believe that they are already exhibiting the necessary behaviors. 360 degree feedback sessions and surveys help executives see beyond their own biased and generous view of themselves as ‘being the change.’

Tenacious Tortoise comment: Some executives view the strategic management process and change programs as a burden on their time – they say, “I need to get back to my real job.” These are the ones who are most likely to miss strategy review meetings, or arrive unprepared. The moment of truth comes when the senior executive either offers leeway and forgiveness, or holds team members fully accountable for their engagement with the process. I’ve seen months of good change program effort derailed when the leader him- or herself opts out of a critical meeting, or worse, is distracted by e-mail and phone calls during the meetings. Of course, these behaviors aren’t visible to rank and file, but the message sent in the leadership team has a profound effect on their subsequent behavior in the organization. This is why the quality of the coaching relationships I am able to build with leadership team members is a good predictor of the overall success of the change program.


14 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Irrational Side of Change Management – Part 1 of 3

An article in the McKinsey Quarterly hit my radar from several different directions in the last few days. Entitled The Irrational Side of Change Management, the title itself was more than enough to arouse my curiosity, especially since I’d recently written a post of my own about irrationality. Unfortunately, as you may know, McKinsey restricts access to some of its best content to its premium subscribers. Fortunately, I was able to obtain a copy of this well-written article, and had quality time over the weekend to read it a couple of times.

The summary and my comments presented here (in three posts this week) are no substitute for reading the article itself, and it is likely that with some effort you can find a copy to view within your own organization or network of colleagues. My aim is to both entice you to read the article and to engender discussion here.

Despite the plethora of books and articles on the topic of Change Management since the 1996 publication of John Kotter’s Leading Change, McKinsey’s Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller contend that the field of change management hasn’t been very successful. Kotter’s earlier research revealed that only 30% of change programs succeed; McKinsey’s 2008 survey of over 3,000 executives worldwide found that only about one change program in three is successful.


11 July 2009 • 2:00 pm

Viral Video: United Breaks Guitars

Weekend lazy post.

You’ve got to hand it to musician Dave Carroll. When United Airlines admitted that they broke Carroll’s $3,500 Taylor guitar, but refused to compensate him for the damage, he know how to respond. In Carroll’s words (emphasis added):

In the spring of 2008, Sons of Maxwell were traveling to Nebraska for a one-week tour and my Taylor guitar was witnessed being thrown by United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago. I discovered later that the $3,500 guitar was severely damaged. They didn’t deny the experience occurred but for nine months the various people I communicated with put the responsibility for dealing with the damage on everyone other than themselves and finally said they would do nothing to compensate me for my loss. So I promised the last person to finally say “no” to compensation (Ms. Irlweg) that I would write and produce three songs about my experience with United Airlines and make videos for each to be viewed online by anyone in the world.

Well, Carroll has made good on his promise. Enjoy the result below. As of this writing, his first video has been viewed over 1.6 million (update: nearly 3 million, as of 15 July) times on YouTube.