Organizational challenges and problems are often glossed over in superficial generalising terms, which are identified as “Failure Platitudes”. By breaking this damaging tendency, strong guiding values can be brought into play through decisive and remedial action.
The concept of Failure Platitudes is an important one in the development of practical business ethics as it bridges between higher values, the realities of everyday organisational pressures and the decisive action which alone can deliver gainful change. Failure Platitudes – and, more precisely, their overcoming – form the melting pot in which creative corporate culture work is made possible.
A Failure Platitude (FP) is our term for the lapse into a common banality from management speak in an effort to explain organizational difficulties, leaving the real nature, complexity and possible resolution of the problem largely unaddressed. The danger is that the common terms that may be used as Failure Platitudes do in themselves carry a legitimate general meaning. Through the use of clear examples we show how it is vital to be always persistent in drilling down towards an accurate understanding of individual situations: only then is there the potential to draw a direct link to guiding values and the knowledge from which to commit decisively to appropriate actions.
Failure Platitudes are risked when people refer to (largely unspecified problems) within their organisation, by saying something like: “It’s about Leadership”, or Management, or Strategy, or Communications, or Processes, or People. The FP problem occurs when identification, analysis and solution seeking doesn’t move on any further. It just sits there as something along the lines of “It’s about Leadership”, without further description, explanation or analysis.
The essential problem of a FP as a sufficient explanation becomes manifest when you ask logical supplementary questions, such as, “If it’s about Leadership, do you want more Leadership, or less Leadership?”, or “Do you want Leadership that wears formal or informal clothes”, or “Do you want Leadership that is developed from within, or recruited from outside?”
None of these questions is illogical in itself but together they show how utterly insufficient it is to seek clarity on and solutions to organisational problems via glib generalities.
– Failure Platitudes condemn organizations to not tackling core issues and to the failure of repeating them, often time and again over long periods. The following examples of FPs, the Issue they might reflect, the Value which needs to be embraced, and the resultant and corrective Action, are just that – they are only examples.
This is a very powerful framework to burst out of the constraints of FP-Thinking. As we shall see below, FP-Thinking, because it seeks short-cuts in hackneyed generalities, often also features FP-Transferred Thinking e.g. It is said to be “Communications” but in fact it is People issue in that demotivated and undertrained staff have become seriously disengaged from the company, their roles and any sense of productivity – they are in fact addressed by communications but they no longer listen or take significant heed.
Primary & Secondary FPs:
For ease of use, an example of FP-Thinking which is makes a direct link to the issue at hand but which leaves it woefully underspecified is referred to as a Primary FP (abbreviated to FP1). An example would be whereby members from various sections of a particular organisztion, of various different seniorities, continually bemoan “Our strategy”. There is indeed a strategic issue – the organization, a foodstuff manufacturer, which specialises in the production of trans-fats increasingly reviled and rejected as cholesterol-unfriendly, has seen its sales fall relentlessly year on year. This is not just a case of the requirement of strategic adjustment – the company is inevitably heading towards oblivion on its current strategic trajectory.
A Secondary FP (more fully explicated at FP-Transferred Thinking), as per the case preceding above on Communications, is abbreviated as FP2. Thus, an FP1 is a case of under-specification, whilst an FP2 is a case of mis-specification.
The most common FPs occur when it is said of an underspecified organisational problem that “It is about” one of the following:
– Leadership is broken out at considerable length to illustrate how easily under-definition and misidentification can mask and even exacerbate organizational issues.
Management, Strategy, Communications, Processes and People are summarised to a sufficient extent to further illustrate how this terminological buck-passing and lazy labelling undermines considered reflection, problem solving through an appeal to higher values and a commitment to strong, productive actions.
– “It’s about Leadership”
Below are 7 possible and not infrequently occurring issues which might be compressed into the blanket statement “It’s about Leadership”. These too-broad FP usages are unpacked into a much more precise understanding and, in some illustrative cases, progressed towards resolution through Values and Actions:
The CEO is incompetent in people skills.
– The values to which this would this map, both for the Board and for senior management would be Responsibility & Care – a responsibility to raise the issue and to assist, through example and suggestion, in the improvement of interpersonal sensitivity and finesse. The Actions might include a quiet but direct talk with the Chairman, the enrolment of specialist coaching and subtle indications from senior management where improvements can be noted with pride and pleasure.
The CEO is incompetent intellectually or by major character flaw:
– The values to which this might map for the Board are Honesty & Courage. If their considered viewpoint is that the interests of the organisation are being harmed specifically by irredeemable inadequacy, their Action must be decisive and not a fudge.
The CEO is incompetent in terms of commitment to the core responsibilities of decisive leadership:
– The values to which this would map for the Board are Responsibility and Care, and for senor management would be Responsibility and Courage. The CEO may well have other compellingly attractive features and needs help and support to focus down decisively on the most pressing organizational issues. The Actions are one of supportive intervention and ongoing support, coupled with an ongoing monitoring of progress.
The CEO is surrounded by incompetent assistants:
– The values to which this would map for the CEO are Responsibility and Decisiveness, coupled with the Discernment necessary to assess how much of the issue is personal incapacity on the part of the assistants and how much they have been hamstrung by their environment. The primary Action is not a ruthless cull – it must be a thorough assessment of the training, support and role specificity. Thereafter, Actions may include anything from removal, through redeployment, restructuring or additional training and processes.
Middle Management has been severely downsized and, due to an ongoing policy of promoting factory floor overseers without up-skilling their management skills, Leadership messages are being overlooked, distorted and lost:
– the middle management is naturally more disposed towards overseeing than strategic thinking (Whilst this is still an FP1, we have chosen the example as it is moving somewhat towards the territory of an FP2: Leadership is ultimately culpable but the issues are focused immediately on Management)
The core value in recognising a FP2 is Discernment (this will always involve proportional responsibility – there is always an inter-relation of factors: the concept of FP1 & FP2, like all human science terms, is only useful as explanatory heuristic.)
Supportiveness and a genuine commitment to Community-Building are also vital from Leadership and senior management when they have a genuine commitment to taking people with them towards new learning and new attitudes. The values required from middle management under this scenario are Trust & Openness – but this can only be expected if their leaders are acting with Integrity, which in itself rests on Deserved Authority (it rapidly becomes so clear that any serious Organizational Development initiative is utterly dependent if it is float on a wide raft of higher values.)
It’s a sunset industry and the company is not managing downsizing and potential innovation well:
– (FP2: Leadership is implicated but the issues begin with Strategy)
Leadership messages are condemned unclear and occasional: However, Leadership is in fact active at issuing values-driven guidance and specific policy initiatives but the use of internally-focused technology is scant and the interpersonal chain of information sharing is entirely informal and diffuse. (FP2: Leadership is not following-through on its obligations but the issue itself is also firmly located in Communications)
Customer orders are going astray or being wrongly fulfilled, suppliers are frustrated at the inconsistency of ordering and payment, overtime payments are frequently wrongly calculated – many people across the organisation are continually frustrated. The common complaint is “Leadership just haven’t got a clue what they are doing!” And that’s true – the Performance Management reporting system is also erratic too. (FP2: Leadership has been too complacent in tolerating poor IT systems and poor IT integration, but remedial attention must be very tightly brought to bear on Processes)
In terms of FP1s, 5 possibilities under the “It’s about Management” catch-all, are: there might be too little management, badly trained management, management which is given too little direction, management which is afforded no discretionary powers, and management
In terms of FP2s, 5 possibilities for “It’s about Management” are: Leadership is very poor at communicating its intentions to management, the Strategy to which management has been set to work is deeply flawed, management does attempt to oversee and direct but is greatly hampered over extended distances by poor Communications channels outside of its direct control, performance management and reported Processes imposed by central by central IT are weak and sometimes even contradictory, in People terms the organization’s commitment to poor pay and poor training makes life extremely difficult for even progressive Management.
In terms of FP1s, 5 possibilities for unpacking “It’s about Strategy” are: the strategy is ignoring new opportunities, the strategy is ignoring major changes in consumer patterns, the strategy is ignoring competitor threats, the strategy is very short term and ignoring sustainability needs, the strategy is failing to consider repeat business.
In terms of FP2s, 5 possibilities for unpacking “It’s about Strategy” are: Leadership is failing abjectly to establish an optimum direction for the organization, Management is so alienated from Leadership that they are ignoring all new strategic initiatives, Communications are piecemeal and informal and an initially clear strategic message tends to get muffled, muted and often lost, Processes throughout the company are both change-resistant and frequently inconsistent and also incompatible with those of other parts of the organization, within People issues the staff have always been paid on output and not on quality so strategic initiatives on product improvement tend to fall on deaf ears.
In terms of FP1s, 5 possibilities for “It’s about Communications” are: there is no easily accessible and reliable intranet or other group emailing facility, no internal printed manuals and advisory material is produced, commitment to functional training is very low, induction of new staff is haphazard and frequently non-existent, it is the authoritarian habit to communicate mainly as complaint rather than as encouragement or guidance.
In terms of FP2s, 5 possibilities for “It’s about Communications” are: Leadership are largely silent and when they make pronouncements they tend to be either weak or contradictory, Management has developed a culture of its own through being bullied by Leadership and distanced through bad Processes from staff of barking orders rather than seeking to establish trust and respect, Strategy is largely left to an end of year quantitative reporting and the organization is left largely to run itself on habit, Processes demand the signing-off of communications by several people and so bureaucratic log-jams often silence messages, the organization as a whole has been so pared to the bone that just about all People struggle to executive on their most basic tasks with next to zero time for additional inputs.
In terms of FP1s, 5 possibilities for “It’s about Processes” are: multiple IT systems and lingering manual systems fail to mesh, IT systems are functional but data input is either poorly thought out or random, far too many stages and too many people are built into the decision chain, there is a failure to consider the client/customer interface with the organisation’s processes, there is a failure to extend the processes out into broader supplier and customer connectivity.
In terms of FP2s, 5 possibilities for “It’s about Processes” are: Leadership fails to delegate the most simple of authority and processes become over-extended and overly slow, Management due to lack of training are unskilled in the nuances of new IT systems, Strategy suffers from being tinkered with too frequently and too prone to whim and fashion to be captured robustly, Communications of new systems and methodologies to the broader organization tend to linger at least one step behind the latest versions installed by the outsourced IT services provider.
In terms of FP1s, 5 possibilities for “It’s about People” are: there are too many of them, there are too few of them, they are very poorly trained, they are very poorly managed, they are poorly paid and resentful.
In terms of FP2s, 5 possibilities for “It’s about People” are: Leadership has an abstract view of all junior staff as at best a cost and at worst a liability, a fearful Management imposes ever more unrealistic “stretch targets”, Strategy is changed so frequently that confusion often reigns, Communications of key priorities downwards through the organisation often fails to reach frontline operatives, clumsy Processes waste large chunks of staff time.
The Model for checking for and for breaking Failure Platitudes is powerful and universally applicable:
Always challenge glib explications of the location and nature of organizational issues – be explicit of the call on higher values required by all parties to the intended resolution – carry through via those values into decisive actions. This further summarises as the AIM acronym – Analyze, Idealize, Mobilize. Our notion of Analyze in this context, the relentless unpacking of FPs, is a refusal to accept the glib, superficial or habitual as sufficient explanation.
“Idealize” is deliberately provocative. To be labelled as being prone to “idealize” is frequently a criticism, an insult even. It carries in this sense a suggestion of ignoring the compromises required in life and clinging to vague dreams of an unachievable perfect world.
In the way that we use “Idealize”, we mean nothing other than a direct appeal to a higher value. But this is a higher value which has already been considered as an appropriate and compelling – but ultimately practical and achievable – guiding principle of an organisation.
Just as Kurt Lewin, a key early developer of Action Learning, famously said, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory”, we would contend that there is nothing as practical and productive as a good value brought into action. To Mobilize is to bring sufficient effort to bear with sufficient moral gravitas to make decisive change possible. This at-first-sight rather formulaic approach to Breaking Failure Platitudes will quickly evolve into an intuitive approach which yields equal gains in organisational productivity and human satisfaction. Valuable concepts such as trust, respect, integrity, openness, frankness, co-operation and care suddenly take their natural and explicit place centre stage within organisational relationships. The corporate culture expands its depth and power in tandem with organizational clarity and productivity.
Most of all, a rejection of Failure Platitudes allow the full-scale development of the development of the core organizational dynamic which alone can create and sustain great corporate culture – Community Contribution & Recognition. Everyone needs to feel part of a productive social unit, everyone needs to feel that she or he is playing a valuable part – and everyone needs to be recognised for their presence and contribution in multiple ways beyond the merely material.
It is fronting-up Failure Platitudes, applying an appeal to a higher value and driving through into effective action that the old distinction between organisational strategy and organizational culture is finally collapsed. No longer do have on one hand the “hard” rationalism of strategy and, on the other, the “soft” skills of human relationships and organizational development. Where AIM plants us firmly is in the productive territory of people doing great things together. Unchallenged, Failure Platitudes abandon an organization to a corporate culture of complicity in mediocrity. AIM high, however, and great things can be achieved. There is no more powerful way of making business ethics real, relevant and alive.