Organizational Insanity

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Look, as with any mental illness, you cannot boil insanity down to a simple, one sentence definition but it serves our purposes here.

Have you heard this before? It is commonly hurled as an epithet at people who seem to never learn from their mistakes. Like Sisyphus they continue to push whatever slippery rock they are saddled with up their designated hill only to have it escape their grasp near the top and roll back down.

Again and again and again we watch people repeat themselves to no avail and we wonder what in the world is going on.

But back to the question at hand – can organizations suffer from the same malady? The answer of course, you know, is absolutely. We see it everywhere.

When I say organization I mean many things – business, not-for-profit, government, family, church, etc. all of which are guilty of organizational insanity.

If such a thing is so obvious to people on the outside of the circumstance why is it not obvious to those on the inside? This is difficult to say.

Usually when this pattern appears it has to do with a person or people having a vested interest in a particular outcome.

But aren’t there several paths to the same destination – you ask? Of course, but the devil is in the details and in this particular instance what we find is not only is there a vested interest at play there is a lack of imagination.

When the two combine – the need for a particular outcome and a lack of imagination – you have created a very powerful vortex that spins around and around and around never allowing anything trapped in it to reach something resembling a reasonable outcome.

Another ingredient that feeds organizational insanity is when a decision or outcome is being managed by a single person. When this occurs and failure rears its head the manager tasked with the failed goal will often deflect.

“If only the candidate were BLANK” or “Outside forces conspired” or even “there is no way we could have foreseen BLANK” etc. etc.

With such diversionary tactics an ongoing failure can be repeated for years in an organization.

Surely not? You say shocked at the idea.

No it is true. Think about organizational timelines for a moment. You have meetings, planning sessions, proposals, budgets, reviews, ad infinitum often attached to a single project. By the time even a successful project or initiative is implemented more than half a year could go by.

Then of course you have evaluation periods, reviews again, opportunities to improve etc. We are now at the one year plus mark before serious questions are asked (if they are asked at all).

At this point you are at the probationary stage – the one last chance phase – and another three to six months goes by before, finally, and with an exhale of relief, we have arrived at failure.

Usually this is where the whole thing starts again. This is where we should be inserting a clear, well thought out, and concise post-mortem that involves multiple people.

But this is soooo much work, people lament. Management often listens to those in charge of the project; those people who will suggest a redo because the goal is still required. No one looks closely enough to realize that nothing is changing and the entire process repeats itself until a clever person sees things for how they really are and seeks to thrust a spoke into the wheel and interrupt the unhealthy cycle.

One way to avoid this problem is to ensure a documented and required process is in place for every failed initiative (or successful should you wish to understand and repeat success). The post-mortem is the opportunity for management to look into a process and make real change recommendations. You should have no less than three people involved here.

Why did this occur?
Who was responsible?
How do we ensure this does not (or does) happen again?

It is not that difficult. However it is often derailed by the ‘Who’ in the equation that seeks to protect themselves from repercussion.

Another reason organizations find themselves caught in the insanity loop is poor cost evaluation. By this I mean the adoption of a simplistic bottom-line approach that puts keeping implementation costs low ahead of all else – including results.

Usually in this scenario there is little to no work done to determine the cost of failure, only a fixated focus on the cost of up front implementation. Anyone who has done any work in the area of Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) recognizes that implementation costs are a small fraction of the overall.

Failure to invest properly upfront inevitably leads to a failure to, wholly or in part, meet the desired goal. And so while you may think you can absorb the cost of failure because you have kept your upfront investment down, the reality is the organization is bleeding because all of what you need to achieve (remember – the reason this initiative or project is being done in the first place) is not happening or constantly needing to be restarted or rehired and retrained in the case of high staff turnover.

The only thing worse than having a person, project or process in an organization repeat the same failing strategy again and again is being the person or persons (CEO, board, management, etc.) with the authority to do something about it and choosing not to.

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