By Shannon Sage
The Importance of Being Earnest for Strategy Execution

“A bit of nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.” – Willy Wonka
I know the quote above is generally used to refer to the value of whimsy and humor, but sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better applied to dysfunctional corporate culture and ineffective strategy execution.

Ineffectively Streamlining New Programs

One nationwide organization, which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, has implemented a massive undertaking of converting all their paper files into a digitized database. (No, this is not a client of ours.) Currently their employees use five programs for case management. The organization decided to take the admirable action of creating an application that would hopefully take the place of the five programs and streamline the employee work. That’s a great goal to shoot for and a reasonable solution worth pursuing. But, the corporate culture’s inability to appropriately deal with honest criticism is stifling effective execution and problem solving.

The simple fact is the new application is nowhere near what it should be for nationwide implementation, yet it’s being continually rolled out to the various stations with barely a word of criticism uttered. That’s surprising considering the application’s major downfalls.

Rather than taking the place of five programs, now employees are using six. When one station manager was asked if he liked the program and found it helpful he simply responded, “I’m not going to comment on that, but you should look at our station stats and draw your own conclusions.” The numbers revealed that the station was getting a third as much work done after implementing the new application.

The fault isn’t with the employees or training, but with an inadequate application. The database contains files on hundreds of thousands of people, yet it forces employees to search for individuals twenty at a time by first name on a laggy server. It won’t search by Social Security number. A number of necessary functions have not been implemented, which requires the employees to continue to use the older legacy programs.

These could be fixable issues. Yet, leadership isn’t hearing about or addressing these legitimate complaints because of the corporate culture. Those who do find the courage to speak up are quickly greeted with a “whack-a-mole” reaction that punishes them for their honesty.

Effective Strategy Execution

Here’s an example: one of the national leaders has scheduled a conference call with team members who are working with the new program. Normally, I’d say this action is a good way to harvest honest feedback, but what leadership typically does with the information can have a large effect on what feedback is offered.

It can be effective because it’s a great way to cut through the “bozone layer,” which is a wonderful phrase coined by Chairman Terrell Jones to describe an entrenched middle-management that is resistant to change and reluctant to approve ideas produced by their staff. Direct contact with the team members on the front lines can help bring those innovations to the attention of those with the desire and authority to implement them. But, back to the example at hand.

In this organization, the national leader heard the employee’s criticisms about the new application and rather than saying, “That’s interesting. I will examine the application to see if that issue is unresolved, and what it might take to resolve it.” she made the assumption that the station must be implementing the program incorrectly. In fact, during the call, arrangements were made for corporate staff to arrive at the local office to “fix” the office, which is typically a fearful experience for those at the office as finger-pointing is more likely result than actual problem solving. What this fails to recognize is that the lowered productivity is a consistent problem among all the stations implementing the new system.

It’s a failure to look at metrics that matter, and a failure to listen effectively and respond appropriately to the feedback staff provided. Word spread quickly from office to office, that honesty does not result in solutions or help. In fact, it will likely result in the rancor of management and fellow team members.

Thus, a culture of silence and passive agreement is born. Staff that would normally help identify and troubleshoot issues will now stay silent. Without that reality check, organizations could end up making major decisions based on a fantastical fiction that could rival that of the Wonka Chocolate Factory. Don’t let wishful thinking and tacit agreement get in the way of effectively executing strategy at your organization.

Has this been an issue at your office? Weigh in with your comments below.