A friend of mine is a chief strategy officer for a big health system, upwards of 20 billion dollars. He’s been around the block—ICU nurse, hospital president, system executive. He’s impeccably good at his job, and he won’t do anything less than impeccable work. He’s also bored stiff and disillusioned. He’s in an organization whose main priority has been to get big and survive financially. Those aren’t the words they use, but that’s the way they act and respond, and people feel it. Their current path to value is to pull hundreds of millions of dollars out of the cost structure over the next couple of years. “You can’t innovate by cutting costs,” he says. “You have to be smart with your structure and your resources, but you can’t cut your way to innovation.”
Another friend of mine is a rising star. She’s bright, young, can make things happen, and learns quickly, by the book and by the unwritten rules. What does she want to be? “I want to be a CEO,” she says. “But I’m not willing to get there by hopping box to box while they all empty out one by one until I get there by playing the same game that they did.” She’s in charge of an organizational initiative, gets good reviews, is a keeper.
They both get glowing evals, respond well to feedback, and create action plans. They also both stare at the ceiling at night and wonder if there’s another way. The older one knows he’s running out of time; the younger one imagines she has plenty.
I’d like to say these are two unusual people who need to get their head right or find another job, but their stories are diagnostic of a wider trend among conscientious professionals, would-be disruptors, and executives in large organizations. “I’m here, I’m taking care of my obligation, but we could be so much more. And more privately, “Is this how I am spending my life?”
Meanwhile, we launch initiatives—productivity initiatives, vibrancy initiatives for leaders, customer/patient experience initiatives, cost-cutting initiatives, wellness initiatives. So many initiatives we have initiative overload. All in service to complex, abundant value—productivity and earnings, adaptation and agility, engagement and wellness in the talent war. Next we’ll have an initiative to reduce the number of initiatives.
All this Brownian chaos reminds me of the elegant system founder Dee Hock set up at Visa, which is, in both function and brand, “everywhere you want to be.” “Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex, intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple, stupid behavior.“
I show this statement to CEOs, teams, organizations, audiences. They all laugh, nod, roll their eyes. Do you see sentence two at work, I ask? Everywhere! How about sentence one? Nowhere! I push and prod—well, yes we do, actually, but it’s all informal. Why is that? If we all like sentence one, why don’t we lead, design, and team that way? Things are quiet for a while.
“We’re so big we can’t move, but we spend all our time getting bigger because it’s the way to survive,” one says. “And the bigger you get, the more sentence two rules.” Bigger means controlling, stiffer, more rigid, more confining. Less alive.
Is it possible, in this era of aggregation, consolidation, acquisition, to be both complex and simple, to be both corporate and personal, to be both productive and alive?
John Kotter, the famed change guru, thinks so, but as there are two sentences, he says we need two operating systems, one that confines, organizes, categorizes—manages, and another that unleashes, surprises, multiplies, creates. https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/john-kotters-plan-to-accelerate-your-business
Are there things that work like this, or are we theorizing them up? There are, we’re not.
Are there things that work, really work, perform, repeatedly, at the edge of amazing in harsh conditions, learn and adapt like the most nimble startups, thrive and surge despite and because of the ardor of the push and stress around them?
We just have another name for them. We call them organisms and ecologies. We think they’re different than us. But we’re not. Their rules are ours, or they’re supposed to be.
Things are moving faster, getting bigger. People are being towed along, wasted, asked to commit and engage, put the team first. There’s a better way to design all this.
Start thinking about sentence one. It’s the language of cells, organisms, populations, and ecosystems. It’s the language of life It’s the norm, not the exception. It’s time to put it to work.
Ready to chat? Contact Larry McEvoy at firstname.lastname@example.org