In Britain, we are embroiled in political turmoil. No matter what your political views, we are all witness to what has been aptly described as a ‘psychodrama’. Meanwhile, the world of business is forced to sit on the sidelines, hedging its bets, whilst waiting for a long-promised resolution. But, what can business learn from the paralysis that has enveloped our political leaders? Here we suggest that the same limitations to power apply to business leaders, as to our politicians, although it leads to a particularly common outcome in organisations.
The political class in Britain has never been more derided in recent times, as a succession of our leaders have tried and failed to grapple with both self-imposed and long-term structural issues. The ascent to the top has been a hard-fought battle and what is the reward that they have found upon ascending the throne? The much vaunted levers of power are in fact not connected to the wheels. Traction is slippery; inputs do not lead to outputs. Results and true change are highly elusive.
A similar journey can be the result for business leaders. Ascent to the C-suite brings the promise of making a mark on the organisation, legacy and recognition. However, having been handed the supposed keys to power, turning strategy, ideas and plans into action can be very challenging, especially when the machine necessary to execute has not been built robustly. There is often not even the same demarcation as in government of specialist execution teams, such as the civil service.
Amongst politicians desperate to make a legacy, attention inevitably turns to those few levers of power that do create action when pulled. Whilst a solution to adult social care gets left for the next parliament, options like deploying the military rapidly become more appealing. To many political leaders, their only viable legacy appears to be to pick an easily winnable war to fight, or a suitably large project or distraction to fund. In business, the common parallel reaction we increasingly see to this is to have a reorganisation.
A new business shape, guaranteed impact on the cost base, visible action, the platform to talk tough, and a ready execution arm in HR, all make this an appealing option. However, these reorganisations can also be profoundly dislocating when it comes to the ongoing ability to deliver and execute key initiatives. Not only does the reorganisation absorb huge amounts of resource, which becomes internally focused for the period of change, but afterwards it can take a significant amount of time to reinvent how the new organisation works – especially effective process and information flow across, rather than within, the newly created structures.
Reorganisations are now happening so frequently that the next one begins before the workforce has reoriented from the last. This has two key impacts. Firstly, whilst everyone looks very busy, the change effort masks the long-term structural problems that then re-emerge unabated once the transition period is over. This is the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Secondly, the complex business of orchestrating key strategic initiatives, such as innovation or transformation projects, suffers as the intricate coordination of processes and information flows has to be re-invented each time.
Often Skarbek becomes involved when the newly reorganised organisation wakes up to the reality that their ability to deliver key initiatives no longer works as it used to. Innovation pipelines stall and transformation projects fail to get traction. Whilst tackling this keeps us busy and motivated, we would much prefer that organisations took up our offer to work sufficient robustness into their change programmes. This ensures that the agility necessary to deliver these initiatives is baked in during the change. The rush to define future roles, get bums on seats, and hit the committed cost base all comes at the expense of the organisation’s ability to deliver.
As our politicians have learnt, there are no easy wars to win.