My Model of What Goes Wrong in Organizations
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

What Is Most Likely To Be "Off" or Go Wrong in Organizations?:

  1. Poor communication
    1. Lack of sufficiently complete, precise, relevant, timely, verifiable communication about important issues - among the individuals who need to deal with the issues
    2. Many important issues are undiscussible (high variance between public and private talk)
    3. Ineffective prioritization, especially re which issues will receive special attention
    4. Insufficient and ineffective inquiry - re comments by others & reactions to own comments
    5. Ineffective advocacy, seldom coupled with inquiry
    6. Undiscriminating and ineffective meetings
      • Insufficient clarity on why, what, when, who, how re meetings
      • Lack of focus during meetings
      • Fuzzy endings (unclear who will take what actions when)

  2. Ineffective decision making
    1. Differences in, and competing, goals (personal goals, suboptimization, limited perspective)
    2. Role confusion, especially around making decisions
    3. Not sufficient variety in roles re decision making
    4. Too many decisions made by consensus (often pseudo-consensus)
    5. Yet, insufficient and ineffective consultation re key decisions

  3. Reward system is "off"
    1. Not "on target" to reinforce behaviors that matter most
    2. Reinforces avoiding blame for "mistakes" more than accomplishing something (with some risks and losses)
    3. However, also there are few or inadequate consequences for poor performance
    4. Binary mode for dealing with poor performers: switching between diffuse, benign avoidance to angry firing - with infrequent work between
    5. Reinforces suboptimization

  4. Other aspects of leadership & strategic management
    1. Absence of an understood, compelling, energizing vision of future possibilities
    2. Inadequate understanding of the external environment in which the organization operates
      • Limited scope, with poor focus
      • Time horizon is too short
      • Tends toward reactive actions
    3. Insufficient attention to implementation issues and barriers - before they are serious problems
    4. Reorganizing without clear and sufficient reasons to justify the costs involved

What directly observable evidence would I expect to find of what is most likely to go wrong?

  1. Unsatisfactory performance
  2. Lack of clear plans, being implemented, to change the performance to satisfactory levels
  3. Sizeable variance between private and public talk about significant issues
  4. Ineffective meetings and interactions among key players
  5. Lack of agreement among key players re: (a) major goals to be achieved, (b) critical issues to be addressed, (c) priorities, (d) roles and accountabilities of key players, especially regarding how decisions will be made

How would I go about collecting these data?

  1. Private interviews with the key players
  2. Observation of interactions among these individuals, followed by interviews re the interactions, including probing for thoughts and feelings not expressed

What are the most likely discrepancies between what people say/think/intend and what they actually do?

  1. Expressing doubts, concerns, negative reactions (relative to something put forward by an individual with more power).
  2. Publicly expressing support for (or at least not opposing) an initiative that seems to further the organization's overall interests, but also threatens my* power and current standing, while privately not supporting (even undermining) the initiative. {* i.e., referring to an individual in the organization being considered}
  3. Expressing doubts and uncertainties about what I* am proposing or advocating.
  4. Not revealing problems with a project under my* direction, hoping to resolve them before they become known.

How individuals and organizations need to function/act to either avoid or correct for what is most likely to go wrong.

  1. Create a "locally customized version" of Argyris' Model II, starting with the top management and spreading as far and as much as possible throughout the organization. Use it to identify and deal with important issues and actions, including the following items.
  2. Create and keep current a clear, coherent, widely understood vision of the organization in the future
  3. Conduct an ongoing, selective scanning and analysis of the external environment to identify major potential opportunities and threats
  4. Conduct an ongoing, focused scanning and analysis of the organization to identify major strengths, weaknesses, problems, and issues
  5. Have an ongoing (changing as appropriate) set of critical issues (typically not over five) that will receive primary attention by top management and throughout the organization
  6. Maintain a current set of major strategic goals and strategies (that also deal with the critical issues)
  7. Carry out effective implementation of new strategies and initiatives, with good anticipation of major implementation issues and barriers, realistic estimates of time and resources required, management of resistance to maintain adequate support for the changes, adequate monitoring of progress, early detection of new problems, and effective changes in implementation actions to continue progress toward the desired goals.

What kind of help will best support individuals and organizations to function/act in these ways?

  1. Model effective communications and interpersonal interactions (puts a huge responsibility on me to work on my competencies!)
  2. Work with them "on-line" in the context of dealing with real, current issues (in contrast to off-line exercises)
  3. Be well-prepared for each interaction with the client: In addition to getting good data, analyzing it well and distilling key points and issues from it, I need to understand their organization, technology, and environment well.
  4. Be provocative - both in content (e.g., bringing unrecognized or buried issues to public view, introducing different conceptual frameworks) and in process (e.g., personally violating some of the group's norms re dealing with uncomfortable issues and feedback - especially in dealing with "the boss, " modeling that it's OK to say something that may be "wrong" or isn't completely thought out yet)
  5. Involve them in all stages - analyzing data, improving models of what's happening, identifying/clarifying issues, developing action plans, implementation, learning from what's happening throughout...
  6. Continue to track public-private variances and help the individuals talk with each other in ways to reduce them
  7. Help them learn to learn how to improve, rather than fostering dependence

** As an overall metaphor for a consulting role, I like the image of a chemical catalyst: (a) its introduction into a system initiates changes (reactions) that otherwise would not occur; (b) these changes move the system from a pseudo-equilibrium state (it was stuck in a less-optimum position) to a true equilibrium state (which is actually a dynamic process involving a complex set of forward and backward chemical reactions that produce the net result of being in a certain state, but one that will change further as conditions change); however, (c) the catalyst remains separate from the final products and is not assimilated or consumed by them.

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Last modified July 15, 2006 Copyright 2006 Rex Mitchell