Sunday, April 10, 2011

Introduction to Patterns of Corporate Behavior

After observing people and organizations at all levels for a long time, a set of standard behavior patterns emerge. Some are helpful, but a surprising number are quite harmful. In this series, I’ll discuss the harmful ones, how to spot them and how to replace them with helpful patterns.

Mind you, this is no corporate self-help series. Just like behavior therapy, there is no substitute for someone coaching an individual through improvement. But it will allow the reader to start to identify whether something’s wrong and realize that there’s something that can be done about it.

For example, imagine a person with so-called Borderline Personality Disorder. These individuals come across as perfectly normal, if slightly quirky. But when interacting with them for a while, you’ll find that their reactions to ordinary events are somewhat exaggerated. When they turn their fury on you, for no apparent reason, you’re left to wonder what it is that you did that was so heinous. If you don’t know the pattern, you’ll be challenged to see the symptoms, let alone the underlying issues. What’s worse, you will react in a counter-productive way, exacerbating the problem.

Recognizing patterns is only the beginning. A critical aspect of improving behavior is the driving motivation. Incentives often are long-term: if you stop smoking NOW, you’ll live longer. If you start exercising NOW, you’ll be healthier at advanced age. If you try Agile NOW, you’ll have a better grasp on your project portfolio a year from now.

The motivators that keep people locked in their behavior patterns are immediate. If those are not diminished or neutralized, there is nary a chance for any improvement. And without changed behavior, any Program Of Change is bound to fail.

Notwithstanding the pathological aspects of addiction, if a smoker were to get nauseous soon after taking her first drag, if an alcoholic were to get a splitting headache soon after one drink, it would be hard for them to keep up the habit. So if bad behavior were to have immediate negative repercussions, whereas good behavior would have immediate positive effects, the person in question would be more bound to stick with the good behavior.

As with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one cannot be expected to figure this out on their own. You have to be coached through it. Instead of taking a pill to numb the symptoms (e.g. push your teams to be more Agile), you change the behavior that creates the symptoms in the first place. Therefore, there has to be an incentive to change that is almost as immediate as medication.

Let’s look at a few textbook examples of seemingly laudable, but ultimately destructive behavior. The Over-promising Sales Guy, the Blame-Storming Executive and the Bleeding-Edge technologist

The sales guy is afraid to disappoint the customer, yet by over-promising beyond his company’s capacity, he’s doing just that. But he doesn’t know, he thinks he’s being aggressive and pushy. If every time he over-promises, he is confronted with this early on and has to go talk to the customer and apologize, he will experience exactly what he’s trying to avoid, immediately.

The newly minted executive has learned that holding your staff accountable is the way to stature and promotion. After all, as project manager she got her projects delivered come hell or high water. And now that she manages other project managers, getting them to get things done should work the same. Especially if she publicly berates under-performers her staff will get to know her as someone to be reckoned with. When there’s trouble, she holds lengthy blame-storming sessions, not so much to figure out what collectively went wrong but on who to pin the blame. Her expectation is that her staff will fall in line and execute her assignments to the best of their ability if she holds them personally accountable.

But instead, her project managers and other staff spend more time covering their backs than getting actual work done. Now the whole project portfolio is making hardly any progress. Unfortunately for our newly promoted program manager, her PMs are Agile and the waste from cumbersome process becomes apparent within a few iterations, indicating her as the main impediment.

For the chief architect, playing with the latest gadgets and tools has become a way of life. He became chief because he helped his firm enter a new age of computing by introducing SOA. He continues to introduce new technologies, well beyond the needs of the firm and the capacity for adoption of the IT staff. Implementations are not thought through and as such, the support burden for developers continues to grow. At some point, the company is hamstrung by the very technology that was supposed to give them a competitive advantage. The recent close collaboration between Operations and Development make it abundantly clear what behavior has gotten them in this bind.

Patterns persist because people have seen their superiors be successful with them. It’s learned behavior. Conversely, people promote others who are like them, for better or for worse. So people are filtered based on their behavior, not so much on their results, ensuring the perpetuation of these patterns.

Much like certain forms of abuse, these destructive corporate behavior patterns are hard to break and are passed on from senior to junior workers. it is imperative that they are recognized and treated with short-term incentive programs in a low-risk setting.

We will discuss each pattern and outline possible approaches to disrupt them or at least diminish their impact.


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