How To Lead A Jailbreak From The Prison Of Obsolete Processes

Congratulations! You have just achieved a leadership position in a wealthy, well-known firm.

Condolences! Your new firm is one of the bottom 80% of firms living in the prison of obsolete processes. Over decades, the firm has deployed slow-moving systems, practices, and rigid structures. Customers put up with its tired, old products. The future pipeline is even worse. The firm has spent tons on technology to no avail. Its apparent prosperity is built on a variety of financial shenanigans.

As in most big firms, only a small proportion of the staff are fully engaged. What’s worse: most of the firm’s senior managers know the current way is the only way to run a company: that’s why the firm has survived for so long. It’s also what they learned in business school, including even new recruits with freshly-minted MBAs.

Now, you have accepted the challenge to lead a jail break from the firm’s prison of obsolete processes. You recognize that creating a digital-age winner will be mission impossible. But you also believe in the art of the impossible, as explained by Steven Kotler. The journey will be difficult, scary, but exciting. Here’s what to do.

A. Preparations

1. Recognize Reality

The stock market has your number. They see through the firm’s financial shenanigans. They view the firm as a goner. It only gets by because its competitors are in a similar rut. If this continues, it’s only a matter of time before one of the fast-growing top-20% of firms takes aim at your sector and wreaks havoc.

2. Gather Allies

You recognize that you cannot succeed alone. You will need a team of believers. Throughout the firm, you have spotted islands of enlightenment at all levels—people who know the firm must change and who are already deploying different mindsets, values, and attitudes.

Yet most of the senior team doesn’t even want to hear about these weird, scary, and fuzzy things, like empathy for customers, permissionless teams, leadership everywhere, risky innovation, and worse.

Up till now, the dissenters have been working in the shadows: now it’s time to bring them into the sunlight. They can help you lead to a very different future.

3. Get A Fix On Where You Are

With potential allies, you develop a grimly realistic picture of where the firm is in terms of the multiple dimensions of its s ecosystem, for instance using a diagnostic tool, and drawing on external financial analysis of the firm’s future prospects. You develop a map of the firm’s multiple dimensions, as well as its financial prospects. Unless you know where you are, you can’t know where you will be going.

4. Expect Strong Resistance

You know what to expect from the defenders of the status quo when challenged, particularly in the leadership team. Most of them will:

You know that it will be pointless to hold sessions with them in which you explain the need for change, telling them that everything they think they know is wrong and providing them with the right answers, using terms they don’t understand like “complex adaptive systems”, and implying that their whole career as managers has been a waste. Instead, you proceed, step by step, to act differently with such determination that the resisters eventually figure out that resistance will prove fruitless and opt to go along or go elsewhere.

5. Get Inside The Minds Of Your Listeners

You know that all communication begins with the listener. So you make an intense effort to get inside the minds of your listeners and understand what has led them to be heading in their current direction. You draw on high-tech anthropologists to help get at barely conscious assumptions of the firm’s culture, some of which will be highly unattractive.

6. Exhibit A Willingness To Listen

You exhibit a willingness to listen to ideas you believe are wrong and you are willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers. You offer an invitation to learn together, while also making clear that “more of the same” is not a viable option.

7. Learn From Prior Successful Jailbreaks

Case studies of prior successful jailbreaks from the prison of obsolete processes will be rich sources of learning and inspiration, including:

  • The journey of Curt Carlson at SRI International from 1998 to 2014 is an amazingly inspirational tale. The value creation forums and the actions taken to prioritize them in the life of the firm are particularly instructive.
  • The journey of Satya Nadella at Microsoft both from the early days in 2008 when he was promoting “agile, agile, agile” as explained in his book, Hit Refresh and his subsequent steps as CEO when he led the firm to become a trillion-dollar digital-age winner.
  • Amazon had the advantage of being launched in 1997 with customer-value already installed as the firm’s true north. But the subsequent two decades also offer rich learning on the role of the CEO and the importance of Working Backwards.
  • There is also much to learn from what Elon Musk is up to at Tesla, despite his occasional errant behavior.

Some Key Early Actions

Based on such exemplars, early actions may include:

  • Get started fast with energy and gusto.
  • Adopt creating value for customers as your “true north” and the theme of every interaction, while also recognizing that management is a multi-dimensional ecosystem, not a machine.
  • Act quickly to ease out non-believers at the top and kill losing businesses, while finding ways to support the islands of enlightenment that are already pursuing the customer-value direction.
  • Be explicit about articulating mindsets, values, attitudes, assumptions, and narratives, and live them on an hourly basis in everything you do and say.
  • Combine your roles as both the chief catalyzer of change, and also being “the chief slowdown officer”, always asking Roger Martin’s key question for each change idea: “what would have to be true for this to be viable?”
  • Don’t be afraid to address culture—the barely conscious assumptions that drive important behavior, articulating and confronting the barely conscious assumptions, some of which won’t be pretty. In dire situations, as at Microsoft, it may be necessary to address culture on Day One.
  • In due course, replace bureaucratic processes with new processes that reflect and strengthen the mindsets and the culture.
  • Be unfailingly polite and empathize, empathize, empathize.
  • Don’t go faster than your audience can handle while recognizing that time is of the essence.
  • Aim for major gains and don’t waste time on small potatoes.
  • And so on.

Good luck!

Note: if you are leading from the middle of the organization, it will be more difficult and it will take longer, but still not necessarily impossible.

And read also:

How Management Escaped Triumphant From The Prison Of ‘Processes

How The Discipline Of Management Grew To Be Cool

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