Coffee and a Do Not: Span Breaks

For all the benefits of being a senior manager in a company, far too many management positions, even very senior ones, come with limited authority… Avoid filling or creating them.

In the grand scheme of things, being senior is a nice thing. Having position, especially position that others believe is influential and interesting, can be very rewarding.

However, in many organizations, particularly those focused on hierarchical control and “execution,” management positions–even very senior ones–can start to look like information channels vs. leadership roles.

They start to look like “span breaks.”  Literally they are a funnel for the span of control in an organization and not for the efficient operation of the company.

McKinsey defines a span break as a manager who relays information from executives to workers.  In an only mildly backhanded definition of reality for these sorts of managers, one McKinsey article explains that:

“Such managers keep an eye on things, enforce plans and policies, report operational results, and quickly escalate issues or problems. In other words, a [span break] manager is meant to communicate decisions, not to make them”

The result?  Managers in these positions play the role of observer, reporter, and monitor.  They may have “authority” on paper, but they know where decisions are made…and it’s at a higher level than them.  They spend more time in PowerPoint preparing for others to make decisions than they take making decisions.

Sometimes companies create these kinds of positions willfully as a means of developing people.  Most of the time, the created position is, unfortunately, an unrewarding one. If it is offered without a developmental time horizon, it can be career purgatory.

One firm’s leadership–intending to create developmental roles for high potential executives–consolidated multiple businesses into single senior management positions reporting directly to other senior management positions (in football speak, this is the old “I” formation). In the process, the company effectively re-layered its hierarchy with a redundant layer of management–not a fun thing for the professionals attempting to make a difference from those roles.

More often, the existence of span breaks in an organization represents brokenness in the leadership culture.  Top managers skip levels, second guess, and generate decision fear to the point where their subordinates only bring them decisions to make–and then, you suddenly have a span break.

It’s not the way the organization works on paper, but when you ask around, you realize that “all roads go to Rome.”  Often the decision maker is a tribal leader or highly controlling (and often excessively insecure) senior executive.

One semiconductor materials manufacturer’s CEO was so prone to second-guessing on particulars of any decision that his subordinates slowed their decision pace to a crawl while they funneled information through the CEO in a long series of “trial closes” for their own decisions.  The organization, up to and including its most senior business and functional leaders, was paralyzed by a smart but highly detail-oriented executive.

Do you have these issues in your organization?  Have you taken steps to create role clarity and real authority?  If so, what has worked?

Don’t create span breaks in your organization.  Devote time to real development of people through the development of meaty roles vs. symbolic ones; and ruthlessly eliminate actions that turn leaders into information carriers.

Most of all, don’t be a span break yourself.  Such is, in the most basic of terms, a bureaucratic pursuit.

Leonard Nimoy and the Warmth of Spock

Spock, as portrayed by the late Leonard Nimoy, has resonated through the generations because he married two things that we never get right:  Perfect logic, and heart.  

Today is a sad day in the hearts and minds of many fans of science fiction, and particularly fans of the Star Trek franchise.

Leonard Nimoy, whose portrayal of the iconic half-human half-Vulcan character Mr. Spock, has died.

I won’t dwell on the life of the man, because there are plenty of tributes out there doing that. Here’s a fitting one from the New York Times. I appreciate the art he both portrayed and brought to the screen.  Many forget that Nimoy was also a writer and director in the series of Star Trek movies.

What I will dwell on is this:  While the character Spock is a shoo-in for the hall of fame of science fiction characters; it’s not on the strength of a couple of prosthetic ears and tricked-out eyebrows, but rather on a stunning mix of logic and warmth he was able to bring to the screen.

This is a character smart enough to decipher the most cryptic stratagems, ranging from the evil of Kahn to the songs of whales.

This is a character so dispossessed of emotion as to have uttered such remarkably useful phrases as:

“Insufficient facts always invite danger.”

Ridiculously applicable to strategic thinking…


“Change is the essential process of all existence.”

Directly applicable to organizational thinking…


“I realise that command does have its fascination, even under circumstances such as these, but I neither enjoy the idea of command nor am I frightened of it. It simply exists, and I will do whatever logically needs to be done.”

Directly applicable to leadership thinking.

And, there are many more quotes like this.  Just Google “Spock quotes” today for a smattering of tributes.

But, the one that stands out; comes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.  In that film, once Spock has made the ultimate sacrifice for his comrades and ship; he says to Captain Kirk:

“I have been, and always shall be, your friend.”

I believe there is one reason that Spock has so resonated throughout the years; and it isn’t his mind.

It is that he was a friend.

This quote is a good reminder that no matter how smart we are–how perfectly logical and coldly calculating we may be; we must connect with others to be truly effective.

Spock managed to do it.

Maybe as we push to a higher level of strategic and financial perfection, we should keep in mind that the people around us are what create resonance with our excellence.

Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy.

May we all “live long, and prosper.”

The Chinese Food of Corporate Leadership

Attaching real change to ubiquitous communications can save you from providing an ultimately unsatisfying change experience for your organization, shareholders, and community. 

The best management science surrounding corporate performance transformation comes with a hefty dollop of behavioral science.

Focus on the people, start with the “why,” ensure purpose, drive for meaning… Anyone who has read the likes Heath, Pink, and Sinek see these soft aspects of transformation leadership writ large.

And they have their place, for sure.

The best transformational leadership and influencing models therefore come not only with tangible change agendas (initiatives grounded in real strategic issues a given company needs to solve) but also in strong influencing tactics, including emphases on structured communications and leadership behaviors to “show” that change is happening.

But, there’s a rub…

With an overwhelming set of tools available for communication these days ranging from in person to multimedia to social media, and with a solid base of “new age” thinking like those listed above directing companies to talk about purpose and reasons for action; companies can have an overweening focus on communication as the action itself.

The result?  Communications are delivered with very high-minded ideals but without much substance or action.

They become a passing thing, kind of like the full feeling after a Chinese food meal.  In 30 minutes, you wonder why you are so hungry again.

Thus, communication without grounding in action is the Chinese food of corporate leadership.

Why is it unsatisfying, and why do corporate leaders go there?

Why has this become the case?  I can list a few hypotheses…

  • Communication is typically deficient – Yes, that’s the starting point that leads to efforts to “lead with communication.”  Leaders are busy. They get distracted from the day to day hygiene of good, solid communication. So, they over correct.


  • It’s fashionable to demand transparency in organizations – It’s actually ok (and, indeed, I encourage it) for employees to seek meaning and reason for their work these days… So, leaders go to communication first because it’s what people want.


  • Communication has become simultaneously easier and harder – Employees can be bombarded with messages, creating a situation where the ease of communicating actually destroys the effectiveness of it (How many of you reading this read every corporate email you receive???  Hmmm?).  So, leaders can resort to it early and often, far easier, in fact than actually creating action.


So, leaders communicate, but they aren’t strategic about it.  They “flood the channel” with communication for communication’s sake.

And, in the process, they create a tone deaf employee base resistant to listening to most any communication.

The implication?  Enterprise-level and line-level leaders have to do a better job of connecting communication with actual action.

But, how? 

The easiest remedy to the Chinese food dilemma is to avoid creating tone deafness from the start by ensuring that strategic arguments delivered to the organization are backed with action.

However, that’s not always possible.

So, the next best thing is to attach communication as an adjunct to good, solid change management.

In one client partnership, we have accomplished this by attaching communications to explicit efforts and milestones in the company’s strategic plan.

We limit the commentary on what is “coming” since many changes that are “on the come” slip into oblivion, and stay very concrete with communications linked to actions that specific people are leading.

In this way, communications that previously might have sounded like “We are upgrading our approaches to product development” start to sound like “This week we launched an effort to re-draw our product prototyping process, led by Jane Smith and focused on providing customer impact in the next quarter…”

In this way, we provide a filling meal of communication and action on the same plate.  We also engage people around real concepts instead of nebulous, amorphous strategy-speak.

You should try it.

But beware:  Trying it may show you how far from action you already are.

Are We Undervaluing Specialists in Our Organizations?

Thanks to a timely share on LinkedIn, I recently stumbled across an insight published by Kellogg at Northwestern titled Everyone Loves a Generalist.  It’s about how we may have a systematic bias for people with generalist skill sets; and therefore a bias against people with deep specialties.


The article outlines implications for management and talent strategy, with a parting shot summed up as this:

“A few words of advice for managers? Try to keep the comparisons between generalists and specialists to a minimum. (Indeed, in some of Wang and Murnighan’s studies, the researchers found that the generalist bias can be reduced when participants are encouraged to judge specialists on their own terms, as opposed to comparing them to generalists.) And above all, says Murnighan, be that conductor: “There I am, there’s my team, let me look at the interactions from a distance and say, ‘What is it that I need to change? What do I know that I’m too close to the process to really see?’””

So, if we are to build a talent model for an organization, are we thinking about where the all around athletes belong vs. where we need deep subject matter expertise?

More importantly, are we thinking about what the value vs. cost of that all around athlete is vs. the specialist?

This insight would suggest we are overpaying for generalist talent when we hire, and perhaps under-developing specialists within our own midst. Most importantly, we may all too often try to equate or compare the two.

The article offers a stealthy but scathing indictment of managers who only want to hire the all-around athlete, calling them “myopic,” risk averse, and somewhat narcissistic (no, that last word isn’t used, but it is implicit in the article…look for it).

File this one under talent and strategy…They go together nicely.

On “Best” Company Lists and the Incentives they Create

Lists that tout the “best” companies without actually measuring what the “best” is can be problematic in today’s image over substance world.

Liz Ryan, Founder and CEO of Human Workplace, writing as a contributor to Forbes, outlines how “best companies to work for” lists get the whole thing wrong.


The operative passage (and I hope you read this after you’ve already clicked the link above) is this:

“I don’t trust “Best Places to Work” lists, because I was an HR person for five thousand years. I know that you can have lovely ­looking policies and programs for employees, but they don’t mean anything if the air in the place is heavy. If it isn’t a fun place to work — if people don’t trust one another, if the managers treat the employees like children, and if you can’t bring yourself to work all the way — then weight machines and free lunches can’t make it any better.

Unfortunately, it’s easier for some management teams to talk about gyms and lunches than to talk about fear and trust. They are too fearful to talk about fear!”

In taking down the “Best Places to Work” lists, Liz goes on to take down the game that results in them, namely that companies employ them as PR and branding programs.

She says:

“‘Best Places to Work’ listings are PR stunts that aren’t based on real employee feedback.”

But, there’s more…

I have a somewhat ambivalent to negative point of view on these sorts of lists. Having worked for and within companies that are featured on various and sundry of them, I think that Liz Ryan’s take is probably right.  Still, the lists that I’m most familiar with do make an effort to take in employees points of view, and they certainly do knock out companies for not meeting a given bar on the employee survey side.

So, I suppose there is some integrity to them.

But they do cause problems. And, I figured I’d list a few points that make these lists, their impact, and the incentives created around them a potential problem for the companies and the very people they are intended to help…namely all of us reading the lists and using them to make choices.  Some of the problems include that:

1. The inputs and nominations for the lists are self generated – This is essentially Ryan’s point:  If you look at the content generated for these lists, it is generally provided by the employers themselves.  In some cases, policies and perks are in the mind of an executive when they are put on paper explicitly for the survey, and it’s never referenced again.  Face it, it’s a fact.  Ryan basically says if you want to know whether a restaurant is a good one, don’t ask the proprietor, ask the patrons (and, especially, erstwhile patrons).  If you want to know whether a policy is in place, don’t ask the owner of the policy, ask 15 other people and see what you get.

2. The lists drive companies to plan around them –  Companies view the lists as critical to successful branding and talent attraction, and so they create executive incentives for their company to be on them. Human Resources and other executives are given incentives, sometimes heavy ones, to get on a given list.

3. The incentives, of course, can have unintended consequences –  When executives are incentivized not with creating a “best” company, but rather with crafting a “best” response to a “best” survey, then behavior can get confusing and, frankly, cynical.  Real issues that are brought to the fore (say in terms of fairness or application of policies) but that have no bearing on the surveys (which may not test for these hard to get at issues), are dismissed as “unimportant.”  This may sound harsh, but incentives matter. In the worst cases, less than mature or overly incentive-driven executives huff and puff at people who actually bring up real issues that don’t matter to the “bests” lists.

4. Surveyors stroke the egos of executives, creating an incrementalist approach to change – The surveyors, who do in my experience give feedback to companies that participate but do not make their lists, feed the egos of the executives (not the needs of the people) in dangerous ways by constantly explaining how “close” a company has come to making the list. It’s a “just a little more and you’ll be there” exercise.

I have yet to hear of a “bests” list survey team that will walk into a C-suite and say “Hey, bub, you aren’t even close…the people here not only dislike working here, but they dislike you and your team; and think you are only trying to make us, the survey team, happy.”

Such a surveyor wouldn’t last long.  So, those messages are given are incremental at best. “Just a wee bit more engagement,” or “we can see your progress and encourage you to keep doing what you are doing” is what gets said.  The implication is that executives are rarely caused to reflect by not making the list.  In the absence of the ego stroking “independent” evaluator, execs might have to take more drastic measures to change a culture in freefall.

5. Executives can revert to blaming in some unsavory ways – With knowledge that their organization is “so close” to making the list reinforced by the survey teams, execs might resort to blaming the organization or, in extreme circumstances, the survey team.  The “our employees don’t know how good they have it” ad hominem is a useful tool when explaining middling survey results and other yellow flags.  As a bonus, execs will also blame the survey team for mis-timed surveys (for instance for surveying during times that are too hot, too cold, too busy, or too boring).  When you are “so close” you look for small reasons for the miss, not big drivers.

6. Companies getting “so close” start teaching to the test – The lists become the “thing” and not the outcomes the list was intended to measure. Companies start teaching to the test.  They solve for a gym when a gym isn’t on anybody’s list.  They solve for engagement by throwing parties and handing out t-shirts when engagement is really about a much harder search for common meaning.  In short, they change the construction of a complex interpersonal environment into a check-the-box test; and fail in the process.

7. They focus on the survey when it really doesn’t fit – The “test” might not even fit a given corporate environment. For example, many of the “best places to work” lists are overloaded with professional services, marketing, and “knowledge work” firms and underloaded with manufacturing, materials, and blue collar firms.  The time and energy wasted in responding to a PR exercise could be better spent on improving the human dynamics in the actual company; but the survey distracts from this.

8. Sometimes the best companies know better – I know of at least one extraordinary global firm that has wrestled with the decision on whether to take the time and energy necessary to participate in these surveys. The reason?  The company defines great for itself, and doesn’t necessarily seek outside validation. It’s a compelling argument; but it MUST come with a highly reflective, listening-oriented leadership team (and it does in this particular firm).  The implication of this “opt out” factor is that people looking to due diligence a potential employer really can’t tell anything by the lists, because sometimes great companies skip the exercise altogether, and opt outs aren’t necessarily publicized.

9. Companies ignore and sometimes play into the conflicts of interest inherent to these surveys – This is perhaps the most critical factor in the “best” survey business, so I’m going to take a few more paragraphs on it.

As a rule, these surveys are meant to make the surveyors money. They are rarely if ever a public service.

Any businessperson can tell you that an activity that produces a salable report every…single…year better come with some provocative changes every…single…year or else what’s it good for?  Imagine a magazine that had the same article every month. That is what you would get if the surveys didn’t mix it up.  So, the surveys are geared to be interesting PR, and that’s what the surveyors want from their participants.  It’s not clear that interesting PR and highly engaged, stable, effective workforce always go together.

Desiring churn in the name of salable product is the first conflict of interest.  After all, companies staying on the list year after year is actually not what is best for the surveyor selling its results.

Farther than this, some survey companies have gone so far as to attempt to create franchises around their surveys, including consulting firms, licensing agreements, and any number of other entanglements that can start to look like good old payola.

To wit, in October 2014, David Lazarus at the LA Times posted an article about the conflicts inherent to the business model used by Ethisphere in creating its “Worlds Most Ethical Companies” list.  His assertion?  Companies pay to use the Ethisphere logo, they pay to have their survey processed, and they pay to be a part of Ethisphere’s events and alliances. They can also pay Ethisphere to benchmark their ethics programs outside of the survey.  All of this while Ethisphere serves as, ostensibly, an independent evaluator.

Ethisphere’s issues as an impartial evaluator have run hot and cold for years (starting with an article in Slate in 2010 that was quite scathing prior to some restructuring by Ethisphere, and later articles have defended or attacked their practices).  As an executive and advisor, I have been on the inside of at least 9 of the companies honored by Ethisphere, and while believing strongly in the principles that Ethisphere hopes to uphold can also say that, on the ground level and when it comes to individual executives: Your mileage may vary.

Ethisphere’s “most ethical” list gets a couple of lines from me because out of all the topics that “best” lists can cover, ethics is the one I’m not sure you can every, really survey.  The late collegiate basketball coach Dean Smith was known for once saying “you should never be proud of doing the right thing, you should just do the right thing.”

I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

No one ever says “They are the most ethical, be sure to ask them about it.”

To know a company’s ethical bearing, you have to go to the source of ethical tension, which is in the defining moments faced by that organization’s leaders every day in dealing with all stakeholders. I’ve said it before:  A defining moment is when two fundamental beliefs are in conflict with one another–people vs. profit dilution, transparency vs. legally required disclosure, honesty or efficiency.

It’s tough to say which company is “best” during those moments of truth, because many companies and their leaders haven’t had to face them all that often.  Impeccable ethics don’t reside in policy and procedure.  They reside in decisions and actions.

Being untested (or, frankly, merely the best at keeping our dirty laundry in the hamper) is not grounds for being labeled the “best.” The same is true of pretty much any subjective “best” list, whether it is best places to work, most reputable, most welcoming, most flexible, or otherwise.

Go to the source.

And, that’s where Liz Ryan leaves it, as will I…

 Liz Ryan says:
“If you want to hear what employees think about a workplace, check out the reviews on Glassdoor and remember to trust your instincts above all other sources.”

The short advice from me for those looking to due diligence a company from a reputation, ethics, or work environment standpoint is this:

  • Go to Glassdoor–just as Ms. Ryan says–if you want to see what people think of their company and how that is trending


  • Lacking a reliable base of responses on Glassdoor (which is still building), I’d go to the source. LinkedIn has made that maddeningly–for bad employers–simple.  I say maddeningly only because bad employers have lost control of the messaging.


  • For other issues, I’d go to companies’ communities, suppliers and customers (current and former) if I want to know about its ethics. And finally,


  • I’d be sure to trust my gut when things seem iffy–if the air seems heavy, it probably is. 


My advice for corporate execs thinking about how to “use” these surveys for PR or other purposes is threefold:

  • First, focus on the issues, not on the test. I’d, honestly, focus on what people want compared to the mission of the organization vs. what some list tells me my organization should look like.


  • Second, sure, I’d reference the surveys and what gets people excited outside my company–one has to attract talent, but I’d also ensure the internal voices are the most listened to.  I’m not sure that’s always the case.


  • Finally, consider the straitjacket that being on such a list might actually represent before deciding to participate.  Being called reputable by somebody who really doesn’t want you to be called reputable every…single…year should give you pause when you think about the implications of falling off such a list.


Oh, and I’d also talk to people who used to work there.  They give you insight and in most cases have nothing to “lose” by sharing a bit.

Once again, LinkedIn has made that a piece of cake.

Know what great is for you and the organization you lead, and work to represent it through thought and action.

4 Myths about Apple Design and What One Means for You

4 Myths about Apple design bring up at least one very interesting top management dilemma about talent, structure, and strategy.

Fast Company Design and author Mark Wilson recently shared an article that focused on one former Apple employee’s views on myths about what makes Apple go when it comes to design.

I’ll put the link HERE.

The four myths explored are:

#1 Apple has the best designers

#2 Apple’s design team is infinite

#3 Apple crafts every detail with intention

#4 Steve Jobs’s Passion frightened everyone

The whole is worthwhile…I wanted to focus on only one part of the commentary.

The first one.

Here’s the operative passage from that particular myth:

“I think the biggest misconception is this belief that the reason Apple products turn out to be designed better, and have a better user experience, or are sexier, or whatever . . . is that they have the best design team in the world, or the best process in the world…[but] It’s actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design. Everybody there is thinking about UX [User Experience] and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better . . . much more than any individual designer or design team.”

and this:

“It has often been said that good design needs to start at the top—that the CEO needs to care about design as much as the designers themselves. People often observe that Steve Jobs brought this structure to Apple. But the reason that structure works isn’t because of a top-down mandate. It’s an all around mandate. Everyone cares.”

I added that emphasis at the end…

Here’s my shorthand explanation of this explication:  Everybody thinks that Apple has the best design talent but what Apple actually has is a distinctive design environment.

This gets to talent, people, organization structure, mission, and purpose.

Sports teams from the New England Patriots to the Milan Indians have shown that system, buy-in, and dedication can overcome talent gaps.

But, too often overcoming talent gaps is pithy-fied in such nonsense as “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

That may be true in one off contests or one-on-one basketball, but hard work is only a fraction of the story when it comes to true, structural catalysis of excellence.

Corporate leaders need to think about far more than talent.  Talent is a resource that has a quickly diminishing return when it is placed in the wrong environment.  And, counter to that, the right environment can provide exceptional leverage to middling talent.

This one person’s view of Apple (I emphasize, one person’s view) reinforces this notion.

So What? 

As an organization leader at the frontline or as a senior executive in the C-suite, are you thinking about the structural limitations your work environment places on your talent?  Are you trying to overcome them by simply trading out people or “upgrading” your talent?

A race car with a fantastic engine can only go so far as its suspension, aerodynamics, tires, and pit crew allow.

Aligning mission, structure, and talent is what it appears Apple has done well.

RAND Corp’s 12 Instability Factors and Your Organization

Earlier today, I came across this tweet by RAND Corporation.

It got me thinking about how organizations are, in a lot of ways, a lot like countries.

When we think and talk about change leadership within organizations, we are typically dealing with scaled down versions of political environments; and some of the lessons related to counter-insurgency and political change can and do apply directly.

RAND’s 12 factors that “generate and sustain unstable environments” are actually quite applicable for large organizations thinking about undertaking transformational change (or, to be honest, merely looking to stabilize performance).

Let’s do a little bit of mental ju jitsu, and replace “violent extremists” with “change resisters” and then see how this idea stacks up.  Let’s take them in turn and I’ll comment on how the factor translates to corporate change programs…

Factor 1. The level of external support for violent extremist groups…OR, The level of external support for change resister groups.

Doubtless, the level of external justification for individuals to be resistant to a given change agenda is a key indicator of how likely change is to happen.  This is the reason that role modeling by executives and peers to a given group undergoing a change is a critical input to the change leadership puzzle. Whenever a person in an organization (for the sake of argument let’s say it’s the finance function of your company) can go and get “mentorship” from outside of his or her group from other influential people who disdain or downplay the change…that person will be much more likely to resist.  It’s academic.

Factor 2. The extent to which the government is considered illegitimate or ineffective by the population

Another highly applicable factor is how legitimate leadership, particularly senior leaders and direct change leaders, is believed to be by the rank and file.  The “population trust” factor can’t be ruled out when thinking about how to lead change.

Factor 3.  The presence of tribal or ethnic indigenous populations with a history of resisting state rule

At first glance, this sounds like an anthropological factor that really is best left to the tribes of Afghanistan; but when you think about it, this might be the most relevant factor.  If you have ever tried to penetrate a corporate fiefdom ruled by a real tribal leader, you know this analogy is real.  If your organizational culture revolves around cults, fiefdoms, empires, and turf; you will undoubtedly encounter much more change resistance.

Factor 4. The levels of poverty and inequality

Change is hard.  It’s a lot harder when the senior executives live like kings and the rank and file live like doormats.  People notice.  A high level of inequality OR a high level of senior management secrecy about inequality will severely handicap efforts to change or stabilize a company.

Factor 5.  The extent to which local government is fragmented, weak, or vulnerable

This one goes to the tribal points outlined on point 3, but is actually the opposite.  If your organization has exceptionally weak local or frontline leadership; then people don’t get the word.  They are left to their own devices.  That’s a recipe for slow change at best.

Factor 6. The existence of ungoverned space

This is an interesting one when it comes to organizational analogies. In an organization undergoing significant change; my mantra is “everybody plays.”  Why?  Because when some organizational space is left out of the mix, people can either (1) reference it as a reason to resist as a matter of fairness or (2) flock to it.  

Factor 7. The presence of multiple violent, nonstate groups competing for power…OR let’s call them competing initiatives or agendas for change

Interestingly enough this one plays out in many organizations every day (not the violence…the competing agendas).  If your organization has an entrepreneurial leadership culture, this can be a frustrating downside of it.  Individual leaders’ competing agendas get in the way of the macro change and stabilization agenda; and you fail as a result.

Factor 8. The level of government restriction on political or ideological dissent

So, clamps on free thinking can be a bad thing.  Interestingly, factor 7 is the yang to this yin.  The government is overly restrictive, so people resist change.  This is a matter of trust.  When Dear Leader tells you what to do or else but you don’t trust Dear Leader; you go looking for a way to sabotage Dear Leader’s agenda.

Factor 9. The level of consistency and/or agreement between a violent extremist group’s goals and the ideology of target populations

This one seems sort of simple:  If people agree that resistance is the best answer, and they do so in great numbers, then your change program is sunk.

Factor 10. The extent to which population and extremist groups perceive faltering government commitment to a counterinsurgency campaign

In corporate-speak, this one reads “the extent to which your senior executives fail to follow through on change commitments.”  Might seem easy, but it’s a failure mode found every day in every organization.  Senior leaders find something more interesting to do than to drive change day to day, week to week, and month to month.  People see the lack of attention and become resisters.

Factor 11. The capacity, resources, and expertise of violent extremist groups

This one is a bit tricky to draw as an analogy to corporate change and stabilization programs.  Certainly change resisters have to have the capacity to resist; but a lot of times it’s just about clout; and that’s why factor 12 is the kicker…

Factor 12.  The pervasiveness of social networks

Absolutely. If the social influencers in your organization aren’t the same people as the change leaders, then you probably have a problem.  It’s very important not only to co-opt the hierarchy of an organization, but also the social networks by getting to the thought leaders first.

In many organizations, the people who make change go aren’t the 35 year old MBAs but rather the 55 year old shop foremen.  Social networks matter.  What RAND is likely getting at is the ability for information and protection to flow below the government radar in unstable countries.   I’m saying the same thing matters in unstable companies.

So What? 

I write this because the language and approaches to counter-insurgency as they have developed over the past 15 years are both directly applicable to leading change in a given organization.  Each of these factors, perhaps with the exception of factor 11 which I had to squint at to really see a link, relates directly to your own probability of leading successful change in your organization.

Keep this in mind next time you think change is easy!


Fast Company: Unemployment Changes Your Personality

David Lumb, writing for Fast Company, outlines some recent research that shows that unemployment for a year or longer can actually cause an individual to have a souring personality.


The key comment:

“Over time, the unemployed men and women saw decreases in their levels of agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness—all traits that could affect how well a person performs during a job interview.”

So, being unemployed is not only heartbreaking, it’s mindbending…and the bending accumulates.

The real question that should be researched is, however, the impact on personality that being employed in a bad situation has on personality.

Money talks, but I’m betting that people who go to work unhappy are just as bent as people who have to stay home unhappy.

Your thoughts?


Belling the Cat Part 2: Greece’s “Innovation”

Interesting commentary from Yanis Varoufakis, Finance Minister of Greece, published in the NYT a few days ago.


In the midst of a highly academic treatise on why his motives are really not to engage in any games, but rather to do “the right thing,” Varoufakis meets the strain a writer always does when he is forced to come up with the “SO WHAT?” to his argument.

What is his “so what” to the question of what Greece must do?

Well… Let’s let him tell you:

“Against such cynicism [about Greek motives] the new Greek government will innovate.”


In the midst of a house afire, the Greek finance minister proposes to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

In corporate environments, innovation has become a sort of conjured savior within strategic plans.

All that is left is to define what innovations, where, and when.

The Greeks are suffering from the same delusion, it seems.

This is another great example of high-minded rhetoric being used to avoid discussion of tough choices.

It’s belling the cat, all over again.

All that is left is to find the mouse who will bell the cat.


Belling the Cat Part 1: ISIS Root Causes

If you follow anything around U.S. foreign policy, you have probably seen the highly publicized comments from Marie Harf on how the root causes of the U.S. State Department cannot “kill our way” to victory over proponents of an Islamic state.

Here’s the video:


Steering clear of the politics that tend to bloom around comments of this type, Harf’s talking points are a striking instance of strategic leapfrogging.

First off, Ms. Harf is in all likelihood “right” about needing to address the root causes of ISIS’ ease of recruiting.

Second off, Ms. Harf is probably right about what the root causes may be.

However, her talking points ignore the reality of today, where ISIS is already marauding.  She leapfrogs to high concept and ignores low reality.

This happens often when unsavory or necessary tactics get in the way of high minded strategic nirvana.

Don’t want to talk about the ugly business of killing people who are, themselves, killing at will?

Start talking about how the root causes of the killing are in the socioeconomic dynamics in the free world and in the communities the killers reside within; and how it’s important to solve those…

This is a classic example of a speaker spouting high minded (and probably “right”) strategic principles to skirt the need for low-minded (and probably “necessary”) tactics.

Ms. Harf has been beaten up in the media plenty for her talking points, and in my opinion rightly so…  She is propagating a narrative that is essentially a redux of the old “belling the cat” fable.

To wit, from Wikipedia:

“The fable concerns a group of mice who debate plans to nullify the threat of a marauding cat. One of them proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are warned of its approach. The plan is applauded by the others, until one mouse asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat. All of them make excuses. The story is used to teach the wisdom of evaluating a plan not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed. It provides a moral lesson about the fundamental difference between ideas and their feasibility, and how this affects the value of a given plan.”

Strategists have to keep practicality in mind

Or else, even when they are right, they can be wrong.