Sunday, February 05, 2006

Events dear boy, events

A friend comes to visit me and tells me he is considering doing PhD research on the gap between corporations stated policy on corporate social responsibility and their actions.

Tony Blair looses a vote in the House of Commons by one vote.

And in Northern Ireland the Independent Monitoring Commission suggests that while IRA leadership is committed to peace and politics the members on the ground are still holding weapons and engaged in suspect activities. (Report in the Economists)

(And yes, if you ask I found the same pattern in Russian history.)

What have these things in common?

They show what happens when the top of an organization - the leaders and managers - gets separated from the bottom - the workers.

Such a situation isn’t automatically bad, it can be a good environment for innovation and risk taking. Neither do we want a situation were managers are standing over workers compelling them to do something

But at the same time it does show what happens when strategy and operations become devoiced. Strategy may be the “helicopter view” but often it is the “expected helicopter view” - how do we know what is happening rather than what we want to be happening?

It is very easy for leaders to say “We will do X” but for the workers on the ground to ignore the message. Perhaps they’ve heard X, Y and Z in recent years and have started filtering our management messages.

How can we expect our leaders to lead if they don’t know and understand what the issues people on the ground are up against? Nor do they know the solutions the people on the ground are implementing, or whether they are compatible with the espoused strategy.

Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of knowledge workers - and in the knowledge workers I know best, software developers. It is said that a developer makes a decision every 15 minutes. But is this decision compatible with the strategy? Does it move us towards our goal?

Of course the developer can’t stop and ask the managers view every time, they need to make a decision - they probably don’t realise they are making the decision a lot of time. To ensure the right decisions are made the two need to have a close dialogue.

This dialogue can only happen if both sides make space and time for it. All too often software developers don’t know they need it, or avoid it because they would rather be coding. And managers frequently fail to make the time for it - perhaps because they are busy making strategy. There need to be occasions were both sides can talk and explore these issues.

The need to bridge the gap between the two groups in an organization is never more acute than when change is happening. My examples above discussed companies trying to take their social responsibilities more seriously, politicians trying to change the law and society and a terrorist group changing its mode of operation.

I once worked for a company that decided it should be CMM level 2. They hired some consultants to write the process. They appointed some “change champions” who then rolled out the process, and they audited the whole thing to make sure it was what they wanted.

Trouble was, the processes didn’t fit the work people did. For starters it was a “one process fits all” approach. Someone once likened it to “pouring quick drying cement on the rails of progress.” It wasn’t too long before the company saw software development as a problem, people were to be cut and work offshored. And they quietly dropped CMM along the way.

I think its also fair to ask if this is simply a break down in communication with the top of the company failing to communicate to the bottom, or whether, it is actually possible for those at the top to impose their strategy and vision on others by merely repeating the message. Perhaps, in order to be part of a vision one must play a role in formulating it.

It all reminds me Harold MacMillan, British Prime Minister 1957-1963. Once asked why his Government hadn’t achieved everything he set out to achieve he said
“Events dear boy, events”