“This is one schizophrenic company. First, we get a nervous Nellie executive who may be on speed. Now we’re expected to follow a yo-yo who’s catatonic—almost a sleep-walker.”
This quote of a consulting client, roughly from memory, was my first exposure to organizational dysfunction expressed metaphorically as a disease.
Organizations—like individuals—develop medical conditions. In fact, probably every organization experiences multiple such afflictions over time.
As The Economist put it, “infections spread via an organization’s culture—meaning the set of rites and rituals, symbols and signals that give it its unique character.”
Identifying what analogical disease or dysfunction afflicts a company sheds new light on what is literally going on and by implication, what “therapies” may be indicated. Here are some organizational illnesses to which companies are vulnerable:
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
With respect to the first malady, alcoholism, corporate identity expert Wally Olins explained back in a 1997 Journal of Management Inquiry interview why he abandoned a career in the then Mad Men-like ad business: “I left advertising, both because I found it superficial as an activity and because I really couldn’t stand … my employer. It’s the only company I’ve ever come across that died of drink.”
My own experience as a long-time consultant is that as organizations grow, they tend to bureaucratize and thus suffer from gigantism. In this regard, one of my favorite ice-breakers when I first encounter a large-corporation audience is to ask, “What’s the difference between a bureaucracy and a team?”
People typically stumble around this query for a while before I offer my answer. In a bureaucracy, performance is irrelevant. The name of the game is to perpetuate the beast/ Do well, and it does not matter; do poorly, and it does not matter. By contrast, with a team performance matters—both individually and collectively. Those who succeed are rewarded by keeping their jobs, earning raises, receiving promotions and so on; those who fail are punished. In all sectors, far too many organizations that fashion themselves “teams” operate closer to bureaucracies.
Here are examples of three other common afflictions:
• Impotent firms may fashion wondrous plans, but utterly fail to implement them through either a lack of infrastructure or insufficient management commitment.
• Organizations suffering from hypertension (high blood pressure) are forever putting out fires, chiefly because they fail to prevent them in the first place.
• Companies with ADHD perpetually chase, and then superficially try out, the latest fad in leadership, management or innovation.
What’s your organization’s affliction—and what should you do about it?