Last night I took a call from a friend who’s been tasked to architect an update to an aging infrastructure for a large organization. The state of their infrastructure was in such a state of disrepair that daily crises, lack of available parts, and lapsing warranties prompted the organization to migrate to new hardware.
His call was prompted by the fact that, in the preliminary work that he had done, the services he had moved consumed significantly more resources than was anticipated and by a wide margin. The vast disparity called into the question what it would take to bring overall performance in line with industry standards. The cost estimates were so far outside what was budgeted that the only recourse would be to prioritize services and proceed from there.
As I asked about simple stuff such as who has an understanding of what services are critical and which ones aren’t, he said something that really struck me, “You know, every day I walk down the hall and every day someone jumps out and punches me in the gut with a new issue. I can’t tell which issues should have priority. No one knows what the business critical services are outside of, ‘All of them.'” There’s the heart of it. There’s no organization agreement on what has priority in the place of business and without that agreement, decisions are temporal and political. In fact, I would theorize the vast state of neglect is symptomatic of a long history of failure to agree.
So you wake up and find yourself in an organization that has doesn’t have strong leadership. You’re tasked with improving conditions and have some budgetary support within your own business unit. After that, things drop off quickly. Petty bickering and in-fighting dominate meetings and decisions are put on hold. Nothing calls up professional fight or flight like the above situation. You’re ready to label the organization a ship of fools and jump ship to a more attractive offering.
Not all organizations are created equal. There’s nothing wrong with leaving but make sure you leave it in a place better than you found it. In this particular situation, I called upon the advise a Gartner analyst once told me, “Don’t be afraid to be a little wrong. Few things prompt immediate engagement like correcting someone.” My advise was for him to create an informal catalogue of the services his organization provides (however incomplete), document the supporting infrastructure elements and, this is key, for him to order them by what he thought was the most critical. Then he should call a series of cross-group work sessions to refine the list and gain consensus, starting at the operational level. He would need to make sure to recruit individuals who are likely to be engaged in the work and who are, “Dedicated to winning the World Series, not to getting a better contract.”
Build informal groups that are dedicated to excellence within the organization, engage your peers, and build pockets of high-performance. Create a conspiracy of success with the peers you partner with to deliver service to your customers.
When dysfunction dominates an organization’s culture and puts a stranglehold on decision making, the answer isn’t to look up for the solution. The answer is to provide leadership yourself. It’s not uncommon for executives to become defensive when the business isn’t performing as it should and to point fingers at each other. Instead of mirroring that behavior at the operational level, it’s important to fill that void with strong positive leadership. By doing so, you’re organically changing the culture of the organization. When you are successful and bring about an improvement that each of the representative groups can take credit for, you stand a good chance of improving the probability that those that represent you on the board of directors will work together in the future. Success always has many parents. Positive leadership is remarkably resilient and contagious. All it takes is one person to convince a few others to commit to it (and the grit to remain committed).