The Art Of Navigating Cross Currents

There are two completely contradictory currents running in the corporate zeitgeist. And I know that you know that I would say this – but surely their only resolution, the only way in which they can be effectively interwoven, is through an enterprise-wide platform for process excellence.

The strongest stream – let’s summarise it as ‘Smash the barriers to agility and innovation!’ – is represented by a sparkling piece just out Build a Change Platform, Not a Change Program in which Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini set out a manifesto that re-imagines how business transformation and continuous improvement happens.

Noting that business transformation initiatives have a dismal track record, they argue for a fundamentally different approach that is ‘activist-led’ rather than ‘top-down’; ‘organic’ rather than ‘managed’; and leverages “social technologies that make large-scale collaboration easy and effective”:

“What’s needed is a real-time, socially constructed approach to change, so that the leader’s job isn’t to design a change program but to build a change platform—one that allows anyone to initiate change, recruit confederates, suggest solutions, and launch experiments.”

I won’t rehearse it further here. It’s well-argued and, as with almost everything MIX, well worth reading. [Though Lean practitioners may groan as they read it because so much of the authors’ prescription on fostering engagement is what Lean has been saying, and often demonstrating at the gemba, for decades…]

Anyway, this heady and revolutionary tidal stream is running in almost direct conflict with a powerful current flowing from the C Suite, which we might summarise as ‘Risk management matters more than ever!’.

The new COSO risk management framework, just as an example, makes clear that all business risks at all levels need to be appropriately identified, communicated and managed – in real time. And the new SEC guidance on disclosure makes it less routine and more judgemental (ie requiring nuance and context). With reputational risks growing all the time – in CSR and supply chain, and in global tax integrity, for instance – and with the sanctions that executives face when compliance and risk management are deficient, these concerns are non-trivial.

There is a way to reconcile heart and head, to have the best of both. It’s the fundamental enabler – an enterprise-wide process management platform which is intuitive enough to support people doing real work, while at the same time rich enough with metadata and features to support effective collaboration within a robust governance framework.

The MIX is a brilliant generator of new ideas on alternative ways of managing organizations. Leaderless and activist-led organizations are useful experiments in enabling more effective collaboration in a constantly disrupted world. But there’s value too in hierarchy and structure. As Herminia Ibarra points out (in another context) in today’s FT, “Google’s famous experiment in manager-free organisation was not only shortlived, but paved the way for a talent management system designed to rely more on procedure than instinct”. Every organization needs to be constantly learning by doing.

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The Noble Profession Of Process Excellence

th3LS50DQUFlourishing is a remarkable book, and rather heartwarming for those toiling in the vineyard of process excellence.

Remarkable because it’s a radical critique of sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes – and, more widely, of 21st century capitalism – co-authored by two US business school professors and published by Stanford University.

The book is a set of interviews around eight papers by John Ehrenfeld, former Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and Environment and still, in retirement, a Senior Research Scholar at Yale. The interviewer is Andrew Hoffmann, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

In essence, Dr Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

“Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He proposes instead a wider, richer definition: “Sustainability-as-flourishing”. “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.”  It’s a definition that includes issues of justice, inequality, wellbeing and social cohesion – with implications for the individual and the community, for every organization and institution.

His analysis is uncompromising: “Growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god”. We neglect human well-being and focus overwhelmingly on material goals – “Our metrics of success are now principally measured in material terms” – so that “in making ourselves rich, we are making ourselves existentially and psychologically poor”.  He asks heretical questions about the value of corporate sustainability measures:

“Sustainability is a systems property. You don’t measure sustainability; it’s only a possibility. You strive to attain it. No single company is going to be able to measure their specific contribution to sustainability. What’s important is whether they are promoting a culture of flourishing or not. Are they structuring their company to promote fairness, wellness, equality, ecosystem health and community cohesion?”

His conclusions are surprising. Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two big ideas. We need to shift our dominant mindsets from Having to Being, from Needing to Caring.  We need to shift from a dominant materialistic mindset to spirituality and love: “Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible”.

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