Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Paradox of Success

Organizations, like people, sometimes reach a point where the ego, either the collective ego of the organization or the ego of the organization’s key leaders, has swollen to the point where growth is stifled. New learning becomes impossible. Innovation and exploration slow or stop.

“We are the best!” “We are bullet proof!” “We are too big to fail!”

When an organization has become so certain that it is the model for others to follow, that it has the answer to every problem, and/or that it is so competitively superior to others that there is no need to look for improvements in services, products, or delivery systems, the end is near.

The employees of these companies are often the first to detect these signs. The problem is that within organizations where this mindset is held at the highest levels it may be difficult or impossible for lower level staff to get top level managers to see the signs.

In his book The Paradox of Success, John O’Neil gives a few telltale signs that help identify when an organization needs to step back, regroup, and invest in some serious organizational self-renewal. O’Neil suggests that we watch for:

  • Centralization vs. Decentralization of Power – In pyramidal structures the decision-making capacity is located at the top, in the top manager’s office. In self-renewing organizations, knowledge and decision-making power are dispersed where the action takes place.
  • Adaptability of leadership – The old, more typical, organizational structure has the strong leader; single point of control; a lonely, isolated, resourceful, and action oriented leader. A self-renewing organization develops and nurtures large numbers of leaders who know how to work alone and in teams. These leaders swarm around trouble, and know when and how to retreat to think deeply, and plan carefully.
  • Flexible structures and procedures – The typical organization is massive, hardwired with policies and procedures, specialized by department and function, and slow to respond to change or mistakes. The self-renewing organization is light and flexible, situation-responsive, quick to adapt. It thrives on partnerships and strategic alliances, continuous learning, and is aware of its shadows – those places where the taboo topics, and the dark side of both corporate and individual personalities lurk. (The Paradox of Success, John O’Neal, 1994 – P. 254)

Individuals and leaders of organizations need to treasure truth-telling friends and associates. They need to listen whether the news is good or bad. They need to seek out teachers and mentors who will challenge them, and introduce them the undiscovered country where growth and improvement lie. Learning is the fuel that will enable both individuals and organizations to sustain success.

Your role is to be a “truth-telling” friend to the organization and its leaders. Or, if you are the leader, your role is to seek out and listen to those who can see the truth and are willing to say it openly. (This is easier said than done for many leaders.)

Your role is to find a teacher or mentor who can lead you into the wilderness where self discovery and learning can take place. Or, it might be that your role is to become a teacher or mentor who can help others on their journey of growth and discovery.

Either way, you have a role. If you choose to play it, both you and your organization have a chance at success.

What is the truth about you? What is the truth about your organization? Who should you tell? Who should you seek out? Who are your teachers or mentors? When does your journey of renewal begin?