Reversal is a powerful creative thinking strategy where you switch your thinking around and look at the diametrically opposite situation of what you really want to achieve. Today, I invite you to visit Me Too Ltd., a traditional copy-cat company that exhibits all the characteristics of an innovation-hostile organization.
Welcome to Me Too Ltd., a company run by a very authoritative leader with an oversized ego who does not tolerate any dissenting opinions to his dictatorial management style. This company leader is very conservative, cautiously avoids any risks and strives to preserve the status quo. Consequently, stability is also clearly favored over change by all subordinated senior and middle managers and by the company as a whole.
Me Too Ltd. has a very hierarchical structure with many management layers. Most decisions are concentrated at the highest levels of this steep organizational pyramid, which makes the decision-making process very slow and cumbersome. Power and authority in this hierarchy are based on seniority rather than on skills and abilities. Me Too Ltd. has very stable divisions (departments based around functions) that are run as closed silos by their authoritative senior managers. Within these silos, every employee is expected to follow the rigid job definitions set by senior or upper middle management. Thus most workers or employees on the lower hierarchy levels perceive their jobs as routine work and boring.
The managers of Me Too Ltd. motivate their rather indifferent subordinates using a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. This is their sole motivation strategy. Implicit in this extrinsic motivation is the notion that employees do not want to work. As the carrot, Me Too Ltd. uses financial incentives such as performance bonuses and promotions to reward positive adherence to their orders. For employees whose behavior deviates from the company’s expectations, the stick brings a range of financial penalties, and demotions. When necessary, non-compliant people are fired. Somewhat predictably, some employees leave of their own volition. The staff turnover rate (one of the more reliable ways to gauge company culture) is high – and increasing. Me Too Ltd.’s risk-averse culture clearly discourages the risk-taking necessary to succeed in today’s business climate. At best managers show a very low tolerance for failures. Generally, they tend to practice zero tolerance and punish any mistakes immediately, often making an example of the employee concerned. All employees are warned: One mistake and you’ll get a warning, two mistakes and you’re out! Not surprisingly, in such an environment no employee dares show initiative, to suggest novel ideas, or try out anything that deviates from the norm.
Me Too Ltd.’s culture clearly favors collectivism, sameness, and conformity among its employees. The uniformity and commonness of the workforce is ensured by hiring people with similar backgrounds. This is further stressed by the requirement for employees to wear uniform at work. Any expression of individuality receives short shrift. A new employee beginning to work for Me Too Ltd. is expected to shut up and fit in. The work atmosphere is very serious. Laughing and smiling are frowned upon by management and are interpreted as a sign that people are slacking. Senior management has set-up an effective control regime and formalized work control systems (such as work time logging systems). A key role of middle managers is to use these frameworks to monitor employees and their behavior at work.
Vertical communication predominates in this organization. Often the top-down information flow stops at a certain middle management level. The employees jokingly call this the waterline. Office politics is a fact of life. A lot of politicking takes place at the different management levels of Me Too Ltd.’s steep organizational hierarchy. Many managers play tactical games to gain power over their peers and to garner influence with their superiors. Information is an important weapon in the political power games, and the information flow within Me Too Ltd. is controlled and tactically managed. Information is shared to a very limited extent across the organization and then only on an infrequent ‘need to know’ basis. On the bottom of the hierarchy, workers and employees are often starved of important information such as the firm’s interim performance or important strategic moves. Because of the pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the closed communication culture, individuals tend to keep information to themselves rather than sharing it openly with each other.
Politics and restricted information flows indicate that Me Too Ltd.’s senior management team subscribes to a competitive, closed-system business paradigm. At Me Too Ltd. networking and collaboration are alien concepts – not only intra-organizationally within the firm’s different divisions, functions or work units, but also inter-organizationally in relation to other companies (such as suppliers, distributors or even industry peers). Virtual forms of networking and collaboration are not yet even on the radar screen of the senior managers.
In Me Too Ltd., management rarely articulates or enacts support for creative ideas and innovation. As staffing is very tight at Me Too Ltd., all employees and middle managers are constantly busy keeping up with their monotonous routine work. For most employees within the company’s lower ranks there is simply not enough time to think about creative improvements or innovative projects. If someone nevertheless comes up with a great idea for a new product and wants to bring it to life, she will find little practical support from middle management and no monetary resources to develop a prototype. Last but not least, it goes without saying that Me Too Ltd. regards training in general and creativity training in particular as an unnecessary expense: a waste of time and money. After all, what is the value of providing training to employees if senior management follows the maxim of “That’s the way we’ve always done things here at Me Too Ltd.!”
Do you know – or maybe even work for – a company that resembles Me Too Ltd. in surprisingly many ways? I have some good news for you: in the rapidly changing, increasingly competitive global business world of the new millennium, organizational dinosaurs like Me Too Ltd. are destined to become extinct based on the fundamental principle of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: “Favorable variations have a tendency to be preserved, unfavorable to be destroyed.”
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on August 2 2007.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2007.