Saturday, August 1, 2009

Corporations Are Learning Disabled

Spend sufficient time in a large corporation and you are likely to discover that your employer is a slow learner. The larger the company, the more severe the problem.

CEOs generally attribute the glacial pace of change to the size of their enterprise; for example, the CEO of my former employer compared moving the company in a new direction to turning an aircraft carrier.

While I'm sure size does slow things down, the more fundamental problem may be the corporate system itself. Rare is the company that encourages new ideas to trickle up. More often, with success, the nimble enterprise created by hard-working founders with big ideas becomes a doltish behemoth a generation of two down the road. Almost inevitably, the top jobs end up in the hands of cautious men and women who spend their days holding meetings, signing papers and saying yes or no to other people's proposals. Imagine Apple in the hands of Louis Gerstner or Jeffrey Immelt. Those who rise through the ranks in this environment are those who most closely resemble the current executives. New thinking is stifled. As self-satisfaction rises, leadership slides and innovation slows to a crawl.

Surely there's a better way, probably multiple better ways. Any ideas?


  1. There is no doubt (or shouldn't be unless you are blind, and/or senior management) that organisational structure plays a huge part in the apparent malaise in the desire to learn in an organisation. Part of this stems from previous experiences...

    - A new manager comes into an organisation with whatever 'baggage' he or she has acquired over time. This baggage can be from childhood, school, university or college, previous work experiences, and life lesson in general.

    - Upon arrival in the organisation, the manager is faced with new structures that may or may not be congruent with his familiar baggage. The structures include, the explicit and implicit culture, values, mental models, expectations, and (this can be a big one) the baggage possessed by those who will work for him or her now.

    - When pre-existing baggage does not match up with new structures and expectations, the resultant disconnect can result in confusion about how to do whatever they are charged with doing (this is, of course, assuming that they have been told to do something)

    - The confusion tends to result in defaulting to the lowest common denominator of leadership, which in many organisations, means to do next to nothing other than just manage.

    This whole dynamic is aggravated when the visible role models (senior guys) demonstrate conflicting leadership signals. It also can be aggravated by a culture that 'talks' about leadership, but actions behaviours that focus on mainly on pressing for quick results.

  2. I couldn't agree more. Corporations, like everything else, tend toward entropy over time. It takes a mighty effort to prevent that.