The inexorable pathway to Organisational Intransigence

It’s against policy … There isn’t a workflow for that.. It can’t be done … That’s not allowed … It will never be approved …

Sounds familiar? If so, chances are you are working for a larger organisation which has done the typical approach of decomposed key operations into functions (sometimes called departments). For most large organisations this is a textbook 101 of scaling — it is the norm and it’s what most employees and managers of large organisations are accustomed to. Creating functions like HR, Finance, Legal, Export Control, IT, Data Privacy, InfoSec, Security, Procurement etc supports an organisation in pooling specialisms and attributing accountabilities and responsibilities for key, repeatable, non domain specific services. These areas require specialisms, and (in theory) can embrace industry best practice. So next time you are told you can’t do something, chill — you need to accept it’s for the best, you are ignorant of the bigger picture. You are not the expert, they are!?

What’s the problem?

So whilst functions can look like a CEO’s fiscal, governance and accountability dream — preventing organisations doing stupid things and ultimately providing some protection for C suite blame, they frequently lose their way, they lose sight of what the organisation is trying to achieve. These are strong words, but many readers will have seen this happen first hand. It’s what turns proactive organisations into unresponsive organisations, collaborative individuals into jobs worths, inherently small agile organisations into large intransigent one, and a “can do” attitude into a “it’s too difficult” belief. And as organisations scale up, so do these issues.

Functions centralise and build power. Often this will be facilitated by hiring outside “Experts” to pave the way for expansion. This breads a sense of importance and entitlement. Functions may grow to such an extent that they develop complex and elaborate reporting lines with the aspiration of freeing up local leaders to concentrate on winning new business rather than day to day operations. On the surface this makes complete sense, but risks incubating a climate where Functional Zombism can develop and thrive.

Why do I say this? Let’s go back to basics. No one would dispute that skills in HR, the law, Data Privacy, Security etc are not important. In fact they are critically important to all organisations regardless of size. Whilst smaller companies may take risks with some of these concerns, ultimately the consequence for ignoring these areas are high. You may break the law, discriminate, act unethically, or leak personal data. It could wind you up with heavy fines or even prison.

However we live in a complex world and when deciding what we should and shouldn’t do, we require context — rarely are things black of white. A decision made in one context may have unintended and unpredicted impacts in another.

In small organisations context is clearly visible to all, as is alignment to the organisation’s ultimate goals. If we are trying to achieve a goal that adds value to the organisation, we can rally all the expertise needed to achieve it. At this point I should introduce my scale of Functional Zombism — working flexibly and collaboratively puts us at level 1.

Over time however, mistakes will be made — things will be handled inconsistently, and this will lead to consequences, setbacks or increased costs. We attempt to rationalise these and to minimise them by creating guidance — adopting good practice. As we invest in more specialists — experts who have done this before — a more formal functional model begins to emerge. This is level 2 — Supportive.

In the early days these functional specialisms will be small, reactive and success as they will benefit from the same visibility as before. They will understand the organisational situation, the imperative, and will react accordingly and appropriately.

However, as things grow , we start to lose this visibility, this situational awareness. This is not through any fault of the individuals but rather from the siloed system that has emerged. We have reached level 3 — Apthetic. Our specialists are preoccupied with their own domain and challenges. They are beavering away fixing their own issues, and have become less engaged with the struggle of delivering value to customers.

At this point we are a tipping point, there is not much time left to turn back from a Zombie epidemic.

The function’s view

By design, a function will become preocupied with its own agenda. As time goes by, they will increasingly feel it is their mandate to uphold and promote their policies and processe and they will feel responsible for enforcing them. Furthermore, a head of department will have been appointed to head up the function and they will feel the very real accountability and responsibility of their positions—remember, their job is on the line if their function does not perform.

As specialists in their domain they will see things being done in the organisation that they do not agree with, and this will worry them immensely. They will seek to control, to bring non conformances into line, to remove risk and complexity from the system. From their perspective, innovation and novel practice will be unwelcome as these typically cut against standard guidance or standard industry practice. No one ever gets fired for introducing process, but innovation and novel practice is a far riskier endeavour.

As an organisation grows still further, enforcing a function’s view of the world becomes more challenging. Observing all the non conformancies will be difficult as will using persuasion (or coercion) to drive behaviours. We have reached level 4 — Restrictive. As time goes on policies and practices become more rigid and restrictive, and more energy is expended to enforce them. Multiple functions may collaborate to provide a unified front — perhaps under some common functional management structure (often under the control of finance — leading to a myopic cost centred view of the world). For example, without approval from InfoSec, IT, or Data privacy, the procurement function will not help you. Conversely, you are not allowed to procure something without procurement, else HR will come down on you like a ton of bricks. The whole setup is self reinforcing, supporting and perpetuating. We have reached level 5 — Obstructive — full on Functional Zombism. The smell the place will be constraint, organisational intransigence and oppression. (Click the above link for a great talk by the late great Sumantra Ghoshal —it’s highly recommended)

At this level, the functions priorities may be orthogonal to what’s best for the organisation. This makes driving change, breaking through, or being innovative hard, very hard. To do so requires escalation to stratospheric levels of management. Only with the aptitude in political mastery akin to working at the UN is something not baked into the functional system likely to happen.

Like true Zombies, the individuals within of the functions will believe they are doing nothing wrong. Their mandate is clear and the organisation’s ultimate goals are not their concern — they are just there to look after their specific bit. They may see the rest of the business as customers. They may truly believe they are adding value to their “customers” (the rest of the organisation) by protecting them from doing dumb stuff as a consequences of not following their processes. They will believe that without their function, the company could not possibly operate.

Unfortunately, they will be blissfully unaware of the damage they are unintentionally inflicting on their colleagues, the culture, and the organisation as a whole. Their myopic alignment to a specialism constantly goading them to either maintain the status-quo or to become more extreme as they strive to further eliminate risk or financial savings .

However, like Zombies, we must remember that this is not their fault! We value their dedication to the cause — this is the fault of leadership that created the system that promoted this behaviour. They were rewarded for bringing order, but they don’t and cannot see they have gone too far. It is a systemic failure, a lack of understanding of Conway’s law. Like the rest of us, they are trapped in the “system”, locked in perpetuity by traditional accountabilities, each organisational silo blaming another.

There needs to be a better way

John Kotter talks about this book XLR8 — and he advocates that we need the two models. Anyone who has been in a large organisation recognises the value of central functions. For example, who wants to standup their own Jira instance when the IT function already has one and can instantly provide accounts on demand. Who wants to be involved, unaided, in a lengthy staff disciplinary process when an individual is being unreasonable. Whilst this sounds contrary to the above argument, it is not so much the existence of the functional specialists that causes the Zombie outbreak and intransigence, rather it is their mandate and focus that is the real culprit.

Functions should operate within a system that makes them equally accountable for the delivery of organisational goals, in the same way that delivery folk should also be responsible for delivering value that is not financially irresponsible, risky, illegal or unethical. No one should be allowed to blame another for their own performance or ignorance. Guard-rails and principles, jointly agreed and governed, are better than rigid and uncompromising enforced policies and practices. This, rather than diktat needs to be the modus operandi.

Ultimately, any organisation that provides conflicting views of goals will lose agility. By their very mandate, functions will develop different aims an ambitions, and will impose their particular view of the world on the rest of the organisation — wanted or not. Whilst this is no different to any other silos, what makes functions so dangerous is their ability to dig their feet in, to say no, to protect their position by hierarchical control.

Ultimately, functions are a manifestation of a traditional management approach, anchors that can and will hold large organisations back when competing against smaller more nimble ones. When a function falls victim to the Zombie plague — it is highly likely that the whole organisation will suffer collateral damage.

If you are reading this and work for a small company, watch out for management talk such as best practice, centre of excellence, bringing in outside experts with “experience”, and centralising functional specialisms under common leadership. And above all else remember that one bite from a zombie and you’ll risk becoming infected too…



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