strategy+business Winter 2013 : Page 51
a season, but they cannot sustain these high levels of productivity. Over time, the quality of their work de-clines and initiatives miss important deadlines. 3. Do our policies promote or inhibit effectiveness? Leaders at all levels in the organization set policies that govern how decisions are made and executed. We found that only 36 percent of employees in successful orga-nizations believe their leaders set policies that help the organization achieve superior performance. In considering these results, it’s important to dif-ferentiate between types of policies. Those designed to ensure regulatory or safety compliance might not aid superior performance, but avoiding the consequences of being out of compliance makes them necessary. But that’s just one type of policy. Many others tend to be based on the personal preferences of senior leaders or long-standing tradition and may not reinforce current best practices. For example, a senior leader in a pharma-ceutical company we studied instituted a 10-slide limit for PowerPoint presentations, ostensibly to focus atten-tion on the important issues. However, he was unwill-ing to relax the expectation that presenters should be prepared to discuss ﬁ ne-grained detail on any number of different issues when called upon to do so during their presentation. Anxious presenters were known to labor over getting their presentations down to 10 slides, while producing 100 backup slides to address whatever questions might arise. The process became a huge time and attention sink. General organizational policies that address the unique “do’s and don’ts” of an organization can also be problematic. Often, these do’s and don’ts are nothing more than a historical record of the way the company has always functioned, or a codiﬁ cation of the organiza-tional or industry practices that worked best in the past. However, over time such policies can become outdated and lose their relevance. In fact, many once-useful poli-cies might actually evolve to undermine effective work practices. Leaders may unwittingly ﬁ nd themselves hin-dering progress if they stiﬂ e constructive criticism of or-ganizational norms and practices. Some readers may have heard stories about a study that illustrates the inertia of business policies. Research-ers placed ﬁ ve monkeys in a cage with a set of stairs in the middle leading to a banana, which dangled high above on a string. Whenever any monkey tried to climb the stairs, the other monkeys were sprayed with cold water. Soon, no monkey could touch the stairs without violent opposition. The researchers then removed one monkey and re-placed it with an outsider. To the newcomer’s surprise and horror, all the other monkeys blocked its way to the banana. After two attempts and attacks, the new mon-key gave up its quest for the banana. Next the researchers removed another of the origi-nal ﬁ ve monkeys and replaced it with a new one. As ex-pected, the newcomer went to the stairs and was pulled back. Joining the attack was the previous newcomer, who took part in the punishment with enthusiasm. One by one, all the original monkeys were replaced, until none had ever been sprayed with cold water. Never-theless, no monkey ever again approached the stairs to reach the banana. As far as they knew, this was just “the way we do things around here.” The three questions addressing strategic clarity, organizational capacity, and soundness of policies are crucial in identifying the extent to which leaders might be hindering more than helping. Leaders can’t afford to avoid these questions simply because they are achieving a high degree of success or because they may not like the answers. They need to consider how much better their people could perform with help rather than hindrance. Planning Your Escape features title feature organizations of the article & people 51 Freeing yourself from the hindrance trap requires a cer-tain degree of vulnerability ( see Exhibit 3 ). You need to be willing to honestly examine your role in hindering or helping progress along an organization’s strategic path-ways. At the risk of sounding like a 12-step program, the ﬁ rst step in escaping the hindrance trap is to rec-ognize that you have a problem. Looking back at the disasters that struck BP under his watch, former CEO John Browne observed in his memoir, Beyond Busi-ness: An Inspirational Memoir from a Visionary Leader (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2010), “I wish someone had challenged me and been brave enough to say: ‘We need to ask more disagreeable questions.’” The challenge is to hone one’s self-awareness well before disasters strike. Bosses caught in the hindrance trap frequently ﬁ nd out only after the damage has been done. But some en-Exhibit 3: Escape the Hindrance Trap Consider the possibility that you may be hindering organizational effectiveness. Clarify leadership intent: the what and the why. Consider organizational bandwidth when rolling out initiatives. Eliminate or rewrite policies that don’t help.