Transforming the Clunky Organization: A book review by Bob Morris

Transforming the Clunky Organization: Pragmatic Leadership Skills for Breaking Inertia
Samuel B. Bacharach
Published in Association with Cornell University Press (July 2018)

“Sacred cows make the best burgers”  Robert Kriegel

In one of the most valuable business books written in recent years, The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World published by HarperBusiness, Donald Sull describes what he characterizes as active inertia: “the tendency of well-established organizations to respond to changes by accelerating activities that succeeded in the past. As turbulent markets throw out new opportunities and threats, organizations trapped in active inertia do more of what worked in the past – a little faster, perhaps, or tweaked at the margin, but the same old same old.”

Isaac Newton defined inertia as his first law in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which states: “The vis insita, or innate force of matter, is a power of resisting by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavours to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly forward in a straight line.”

This is what Samuel B. Bacharach has in mind when asserting that only pragmatic leaders have the temperament and the skills to avoid or overcome organizational inertia. There are two kinds: “the clunky tendency and the myopic tendency. The clunky tendency emerges when the organization has unintegrated structures, diffuse authority,  overlapping goals,,, and a general sense of organized anarchy. The myopic tendency  is reinforced by outdated practices and old business models.”

With regard to pragmatic leadership, I am reminded of when Anne Mulcahy was elected president of Xerox, the first woman to hold that position in the corporation’s history. What was the most valuable she received? From Albert C. Black, Jr., a “plainspoken, self-made, streetwise guy” who was president of a small management firm: “When everything gets really complicated and you feel overwhelmed, think about it this way: You gotta do three things. First, get the cow out of the ditch. Second, find out how the cow got into the ditch. Third, make sure you do whatever it takes so the cow doesn’t  go into the ditch again.”

Pragmatic leaders insist on knowing what works and why, and, what doesn’t work and why not. As Bacharach explains, pragmatic leaders attack inertia by making sure that their organizations engage in discovery and delivery. That is, “robust discovery by constantly reading the environment, picking up new ideas, and translating those ideas into concrete innovations, changes, and agendas.  They then focus on delivery, making sure these the new ideas gain support in their organization, are implemented, and become an integral part of the organization’s agenda rather than fall into the abyss of unfulfilled aspiration.”

Presumably Bacharach agrees with me is that one of the defining characteristics of a healthy organization is that almost everyone involved thinks and behaves in terms of first-person PLURAL pronouns. Clunky organizations invariably have clunky leaders and are ill-prepared to succeed in a global marketplace that is more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can remember. A high percentage of their people are passively engaged (“mailing it in”) and remain convinced that “good enough” is acceptable, indeed exemplary.

I commend Samuel Bacharach on the abundance of information, insights, and counsel that can help prepare each reader to become a much more pragmatic leader. However, there are some organizations in which inertia cannot be broken. It is the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Those who find themselves in such an organization should continue to make a best effort and, meanwhile, discreetly seek better opportunities elsewhere. Check out an earlier work, The Agenda Mover. Bacharach’s material will help to set new priorities that will focus on personal growth and professional development. Lodi wisdom is appropriate: “When you find yourself on a dead horse, get off.”

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