Agile Forest

Find your path to agility with Renee Troughton

For a while now I have been discombombulated. The cause of my confusion and desperation has been around the issue of management. 

I am not talking about Leadership. Leaders are people (whether in a position of hierarchy or not) that naturally foster an environment of collaboration, understanding and consensus. No, what I am talking about is the ability to influence creatively or constructively criticise the status quo to a person considered your “superior”. I want to use the term superior loosely knowing how much people will hate it, to represent an authority figure in a command and control environment. After all, Managers who aren’t getting the message about Leadership really do think they are superior (how many sweeping generalisations can I put in one post?).

I have come to the conclusion that a good number of employee frustrations are systemic from the culture; a culture which is powered by management. It is incredibly difficult to change culture from the bottom up. It can be influenced from the bottom up but there is a point where it cannot stretch anymore without management buy-in to the culture change. Failing senior management or C-suite buy-in to seriously throw money into changing a culture (yes culture change costs currency) I have been pondering how it may ever be possible for this problem to fixed in any way.

The C-suite don’t get it. Either they weren’t educated in it, don’t want to be educated in it or are too busy improving shareholder value. They are the Lords of this day and age, and how much did the Lords ever care about their serfs? Middle management are the Courtiers. Lower management are the cooks. Everyone else is working in the field.

Groups like STOOS believe that they can solve this problem through conferences targeted to the C-suite.  It is an interesting approach, but the sort of C-suite executives that will attend are the ones that I think for the most part are already on the journey or starting to question their belief system. It will make some in roads but I fear it won’t cross the chasm and I desperately ache for this chasm to be crossed. More needs to be done.

Others believe that they need to be right-shifted. I am admittedly still looking into this but have yet to get into significant enough depth to see if there is a mechanism to induce the chasm crossing.

I have been relaying this story a lot recently -

When a new person joins your team watch them closely. Watch how they learn and what they say. Watch how people react to what they say. Start to gather a pattern. What you will find is that when people join an organisation they are highly motivated. This is called the “Honeymoon phase”. The organisation is a veritible field of endless possibilities. They have been sold a dream by a HR department and manager.

The new person will listen for a while, enveloping themselves in the culture, trying to best see where they fit. They will start critically thinking early. They will ask questions like “Why do you do <insert task> that way?” They are trying to frame the task around their mind-map of how they have done it before and are judging it for efficiency and common sense. Failing a suitable answer they will delve further. Naturally they will gravitate towards the 5-whys, despite never hearing of Lean.

Eventually their critical thinking will be blocked by the “Monkey and the Banana syndrome” response. A root cause is not met and the first brick on the wall of critical thinking resistance is placed. As their first few weeks progress the same scenarios occur. Their brick wall begins to get higher.

When the wall reaches their knees self doubt sets in. Naturally they try to fight it, but in a different way. Rather than taking a critical thinking approach they will try a different tact. They will try the innovation path – providing suggestions of how they have seen it done elsewhere and the benefits that they had in doing it that way. They will get more Monkey and Banana syndrome responses or “We have tried that before, it didn’t work because <x> and <y>”, then the new person is back to the same lack of response to critical thinking. Innovation bricks now get added to the pile that is up to their knees.

After a few months their wall is up to their eyes and they can no longer see over the wall. There is no vision. No hope. The organisations culture is now embedded in them.

Sometimes I am asked what the Monkey and Banana syndrome is (usually younger people who haven’t heard it before). For those unfamiliar with it this is how it was told to me about fifteen years ago. I haven’t ever read the internet version so it may be a little different for those that have read it:

This is a story based upon a scientific experiment. A scientist puts into a large white room a metal ladder with a finger of bananas hanging from the ceiling. The middle step of the ladder is rigged to set an electric shock through the metal floor of the room. The scientist then lets in five monkeys. The monkeys excitedly see the bananas. One scrambles up the ladder and gets to the middle step. An electric shock is sent through the floor and ladder with all monkeys get shocked. The second time the monkey hits the middle step the other monkeys begin to get the picture. On the third attempt the monkeys pull the hopeful monkey on the ladder down and beat him up.

Subsequent attempts to climb the ladder result in beatings. The scientist then takes out one monkey and replaces them with a brand new monkey. This monkey sees the bananas and proceeds towards the ladder. He only gets two steps up before he is pulled down and beaten. He never knows why but after the second attempt he knows that if he tries to get up the ladder his peers will exert physical pressure.

The scientist continues to rotate the original set of monkeys out one by one and replace them with new monkeys. Eventually the room is filled of monkeys that have no understanding about why they are not allowed up the ladder but that if someone ever tries they should be beaten up.

“That’s just the way we have always done it around here.”

So you can see by my thought process that unlike some other thought leaders, I actually don’t think the ability to critically think is a lost art despite many years of behavioural conditioning supposedly beating this out of us. I believe critical thinking is a subconscious ability that we all have and continue to have despite command and control overriding it almost every single day. It is there. We have just given up trying to use it because no one is listening.

To get out of this endless rut I see a few possible solutions:

  1. Managers get better listening skills. Right now that you are done laughing, what are the other options.
  2. People get better persuasion and communication skills. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being highly unlikely to work and 10 being certain to work I probably rate this a 3.
  3. Have scientific metrics that prove empowerment, innovation and critical thinking are advantagous to the bottom line of an organisation. I am pretty sure the information is out there, but this depends on solution 1, and well, there goes that idea.
  4. Revolt. This is essentially option 2 but done on a less individualistic scale and more ganging up. This does happen naturally in teams but this method seeks pre-emptive goal setting. Despite being able to do this it will only work for one level above the team and from there will fizzle to get any traction, unless you get many teams to revolt at once and that is getting beyond the realm of possibility. Someone suggested to me that as an analogy it is like the monkeys ignoring the ladder and hopping on top of each other to form a monkey pyramid to get to the bananas.
  5. Teams get better facilitation skills and all team sessions have a pre-set, well skilled facilitator. In a team environment I give this a 5 to work, but outside of a team environment we are back to the original problem. That said you could encourage an environment where all suggestions of process change and innovation are raised through a facilitated team environment (sounds very Agile doesn’t it?)
  6. Enable a way to give a singular voice a pedastal. I am toying with an approach for this. I don’t think this will realistically happen inside of an organisation but I wonder if there is a means to force more social pressure for the C-suite to change their belief system.

What do you think? Are there other options to open up the eyes and ears of management?

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