Don’t try to change your organization; change the underlying forces that make it what it is


In the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Charles Lyell, a Scot­tish geol­o­gist, pro­fessed the rad­i­cal view that the same forces that shaped the Earth in the past were still oper­at­ing in the present moment. His the­o­ry chal­lenged the more palat­able the­o­ry at the time that geo­log­i­cal epochs end­ed in major, cat­a­stroph­ic events, such as species being wiped out and moun­tain ranges being sud­den­ly thrown up. Some of Lyel­l’s con­tem­po­raries had even attempt­ed to cor­re­late these cat­a­stro­phes with Bib­li­cal ones, such as Noah’s Flood. What Lyel­l’s views high­light­ed in con­trast was the grad­ual accre­tion and impacts over time of sub­tle, but pow­er­ful forces, such as the long term effects of ero­sion or what we now know as the moun­tain-build­ing col­li­sion of tec­ton­ic plates. We look at the moun­tain and what we see are the effects of forces still in play, although our minds may tell us the moun­tain is a fin­ished thing. 

I men­tion this as a metaphor for what hap­pens in orga­ni­za­tions. We tend to see many aspects of a work­place envi­ron­ment as “fin­ished” or sim­ply facts of orga­ni­za­tion­al life when in truth they oper­ate as sub­tle forces that influ­ence an ongo­ing evolution. 

I recall facil­i­tat­ing an orga­ni­za­tion’s retreat for top lead­ers of a finan­cial firm about twen­ty years ago. The two founders were the only real rain­mak­ers, bring­ing in 90% of all the busi­ness. Both the founders and a group of oth­er key prin­ci­pals were becom­ing uncom­fort­able with this arrange­ment and, after some years were final­ly ready to talk about it. Although the firm was doing well finan­cial­ly in that moment, a lot of peo­ple were depend­ing on the founders’ rain­mak­ing and there was no pro­vi­sion for — or even guess about — what might hap­pen to the firm if one or both of the founders left. 

At the time we looked at this prob­lem and sim­ply asked, “Okay, now what?” and began to think of ways to bol­ster the rain­mak­ing of the oth­er prin­ci­pals. Could quo­tas (“Ugh!”) be estab­lished for each prin­ci­pal? Could the founders do a bet­ter job teach­ing the oth­er prin­ci­pals how to do it? (“Real­ly, do we have to do that? Should­n’t you guys know already?”) In the end, there was no real agree­ment about how best to move for­ward, but the prin­ci­pals sure­ly got the mes­sage from the founders: just do it! It was­n’t what I would call a break­through moment.

A bet­ter ques­tion sure­ly would have been, “What forces have been at play (and still are at play) in your orga­ni­za­tion to cre­ate this sit­u­a­tion?” As a con­sul­tant, had I advised this direc­tion — which I did not at the time — a dif­fer­ent and bet­ter set of issues might have appeared. Look­ing back, we might have con­sid­ered more directly:

• Rapid growth of the com­pa­ny with­out a tal­ent man­age­ment plan, lead­ing to sev­er­al pro­mo­tions to prin­ci­pal sta­tus based on tech­ni­cal exper­tise with­out any nec­es­sary demon­stra­tion of net­work­ing or sales skills

• The first pro­mo­tion to prin­ci­pal after the founders was a reward for help­ing start the com­pa­ny, not the result of qual­i­fi­ca­tions, per se — this set a precedent

• Pro­mo­tion in the com­pa­ny had always been strong­ly influ­enced by loy­al­ty and work eth­ic, mak­ing it hard­er to give any prin­ci­pal feed­back with­out a sense of guilt or embar­rass­ment

• The prin­ci­pals don’t feel they had time in their sched­ules and often assumed they weren’t very good at busi­ness generation

• Founders hon­est­ly enjoyed their sep­a­rate sta­tus and pow­er as the com­pa­ny’s rainmakers

• The firm is a “nice place to work” — nobody wants to to deal with ANY uncom­fort­able human man­age­ment issues, such as a per­for­mance gap of any kind for anybody.

• The firm does­n’t have (and may have avoid­ed cre­at­ing) a strate­gic long-term vision of the com­pa­ny in which the cur­rent prin­ci­pals might replace the founders — in part because of the prin­ci­ples’ fail­ure to gen­er­ate much busi­ness of their own!

• Solv­ing short-term cus­tomer ser­vice demands had always been assumed to be the high­est busi­ness priority

• The firm con­tin­ues to have a suf­fi­cient cus­tomer base — there’s no cur­rent cri­sis so why worry?

Each one of these fac­tors con­tin­ued to oper­ate as a sub­tle but per­sis­tent force in the orga­ni­za­tion. In effect, we had looked at a moun­tain and only asked, “What do we do about it?” not “How did this moun­tain get here and how do we influ­ence the forces that cre­at­ed it?” Had we asked these deep­er ques­tions, we might have moved to a bet­ter dis­cus­sion of learn­ing and tem­pera­ment, human poten­tials and tal­ent man­age­ment plans, the need to rede­fine com­pa­ny norms, and ways to address con­flict, embar­rass­ment and guilt as lead­ers of the company.

Today, twen­ty years lat­er, the firm is a pow­er­house and seems to have solved the prob­lem — so I guess they got over it! But I sense that if I’d been smarter back then and helped reframe the issue as one about the forces that built the moun­tain, we would have got­ten a lot far­ther a lot faster. 

In a way, it’s a shift of con­scious­ness to think of our pat­terns of con­duct, our assump­tions, our well-intend­ed prac­tices and oth­er fea­tures of a team or orga­ni­za­tion­al life as “forces ” — forces that have influ­enced us in the past and will con­tin­ue to influ­ence us in the future unless they are called out for exact­ly what they are and addressed head on. 

On one hand it sounds sim­ple, but there are some­times oth­er, even larg­er forces at work, includ­ing the notion that smart peo­ple ought to be able to just fix things with­out actu­al­ly hav­ing to think about them or stay in the dis­com­fort of their pres­ence for too long. 


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