Ron Ashkenas on “Why Organizations Are So Afraid to Simplify”

Posted on: March 29th, 2013 by bobmorris

Why OrganizationsHere is an excerpt from an article written by Ron Askenas for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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While most managers complain about being overloaded with responsibilities, very few are willing to give up any of them. It’s one of the great contradictions of organizational life: People are great at starting new things — projects, meetings, initiatives, task forces — but have a much harder time stopping the ones that already exist.

Take this example: The CEO of a large consumer products company was concerned that the organization was becoming too complex and unwieldy — which was adding to costs and slowing down decisions. After a long discussion with her senior team, everyone agreed to identify committees, projects, and studies that could be stopped across the firm. However, when the executive team reconvened the next month to review the ideas, everyone pointed out activities that other teams should stop instead of opportunities in their own domains. They then spent an hour justifying why everything that they were doing was critical and couldn’t be stopped.

There are several deep psychological reasons why stopping activities is so hard to do in organizations. First, while people complain about being too busy, they also take a certain amount of satisfaction and pride in being needed at all hours of the day and night. In other words, being busy is a status symbol. In fact a few years ago we asked senior managers in a research organization — all of whom were complaining about being too busy — to voluntarily give up one or two of their committee assignments. Nobody took the bait because being on numerous committees was a source of prestige.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting, and is currently serving as an Executive-in-Residence at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. He is a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization. His latest book is Simply Effective. To read his other HBR articles, please click here.

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