When I met Tom, he was 25 years old and working at a successful advertising company in a major city in the Midwest. Let’s call the company Turnstyle.
The year after earning an English degree, Tom lived at his mom’s house, saved up money, and traveled to Australia for a few months. When he got back to the Midwest, his friend recommended him to Turnstyle, and they hired him. After a few months as a copywriter, he received a promotion to the role of assistant ad buyer.
Tom was good at his job, and his colleagues liked him. Tina, one of the ad buyers he supported, considered him thoughtful and precise. She recommended him for his promotion after less than a year.
Despite working at Turnstyle for only a short time, Tom was loyal. He wasn’t restless or very ambitious. He didn’t look anxiously towards the horizon like a Disney princess. He liked to contribute. He had gotten his education, traveled the world, and now was starting his career. In short, Tom was a dedicated and mild-mannered employee.
But Tom had one problem at Turnstyle. He had lots and lots of ideas but felt powerless to make any of his ideas a reality.
He reached out to me to act as a sort of “change therapist.” I often play this role for people, and I enjoy it. It means hearing many exciting stories, problems, and drinking good coffee, tea, and beer. I agreed to meet.
Tom was bursting with ideas for Turnstyle. They could be using analytics much better across the board. Bias was polluting Turnstyle’s hiring process: interviewers were influencing each other between interviews by inflating or discounting candidates’ abilities. This was leading to less consistent and lower quality hiring. The company was spreading itself too thin, going after large- and medium-sized clients at the same time and not doing a great job of serving either.
“If we focused on just one segment of the market, we could dominate the region,” Tom said. He stared down at the bar, searching in the water stains for a way to communicate all his ideas to the higher-ups at Turnstyle.
When a smart, creative person doesn’t know how to lead change, they can feel frustrated or angry, and they might drag their feet or be testy or moody. If their new ideas are not being heard, their eagerness and engagement may begin to flag. They will become skeptical, disengaged, and finally, apathetic. If they stop believing they can make any change, work loses much of its meaning. They might either quit or look for meaning somewhere else in their lives. Tom was not yet apathetic, but his creative energy was flagging.
Tom’s ideas sounded great. They might not all turn out to work or be right, but they were excellent hunches and deserved a few experiments to test them. I asked Tom what he had done to get these changes started at Turnstyle. Had he talked to his manager? Maybe he ought to initiate change by going to his boss? That is the most natural solution, isn’t it? Bosses today either already are or know they should be open to new ideas and invite their reports to treat them as a sounding board and a coach for innovation. Shouldn’t they?
Tom looked at me and shook his head. His manager was not open to new ideas. His boss kept Tom focused on his immediate deliverables and the happiness of the ad buyers. She was not interested in Tom’s “what if” sorts of ideas concerning the company’s client strategy or new analytics engines.
“But it’s not her fault,” Tom explained. The company had ambitious goals, and the ad buyers were stressed and overworked trying to meet them. That meant their assistants, like Tom, were also stressed and overworked. From his manager’s perspective, all that only got worse if an assistant had his head in the clouds.
“There isn’t really anything I can do anyways. Change comes from way above me,” Tom said.
Strategic Planning and Top-Down Change
Like at most companies today, change at Turnstyle came from the top-down through a process called Strategic Planning.
[ Image: naive top down.jpg ]
Strategic Planning is the most common strategy for change. In it, new ideas originate at or near the top and then come down through the management hierarchy.
Every quarter or two, members of the C-suite and the VPs went to a lake house or a ski lodge for an offsite strategy meeting. Over strong coffee in the morning and strong drinks at night, they gave presentations, conducted brainstorms, and attempted to make a plan for the business for the next 1-3 years. Upon returning to Turnstyle, the CEO gave a presentation to the whole company outlining the new goals, and the VPs set new metrics and timelines for their departments. People inside the departments would conduct Operational Planning, meaning they would create plans for how to achieve the changes set in strategic planning.
To influence this process, Tom would have to find a way to get his manager to sweet-talk one of the VPs. He didn’t hold much hope of that ever happening. Tom admitted he wasn’t good at office politics or being an “influencer,” and he didn’t want to be. Shouldn’t common sense be enough? Why did Tom have to play games, be insincere, or stab his colleagues in the back to make change?
“So basically, I’m screwed,” Tom concluded and took a sip from his beer.
Strategic planning is the most common strategy for organizational change. The common belief is that change flows from the top down from executives or the outside in from consultants. Business schools reinforce the belief by training tens of thousands of executives and consultants every year in top-down business plans, financial models, and hundred-slide PowerPoint presentations. But this most common of approaches to managing change misses the fact that change can also be led from the bottom up and the inside out.
Strategic planning is the default strategy for change for two very seductive reasons. Those at the top of an organization have an obligation to set the course for the organization, and the position at the top gives them a superior vantage point to view the company than others closer to the front lines. And while these two reasons are certainly true and well-intentioned, top-down change through traditional strategic planning has one enormous unwanted and unintended negative consequence: Permission Paralysis.
Permission paralysis happens when change only comes from the top-down. The symptoms of this organizational disease are lower engagement, lower productivity, and frustrated team members. People feel that they would be punished for making a change or improvement. Everyone has to wait for permission from above to do anything. They wonder when, finally, they will be allowed to try something new, but the day never comes.
Tom was a poster-child for permission paralysis. He felt as if he could get a green light on one of his ideas, he make a significant contribution. However, as time went on, his hope was evaporating. Turnstyle’s permission paralysis was leading Tom into frustration, anger, and resentment. Finally, he would give up on making any changes, or he would quit.
Top-down change causes permission paralysis because the only way for team members to protest a change they disagree with is to drag their feet. When change comes down from the top, it meets a mixed response. Middle-managers and front-line employees either support it, will submit to it, or disagree with it. Since they had no power to influence the change before it happened and now to disagree would mean insubordination, the only possible protest is to slow down their efforts and work to a minimum.
Permission paralysis is a complicated problem to solve. It afflicts some people more than others and can be endemic to the culture of an entire organization. It is a double-bind, a Catch 22. It is hard for a single person, no matter what their role is, to cure a culture of permission paralysis. But if everyone waits for permission to make a change, an organization will fossilize in its current state.
Tom felt that if he went ahead and made changes, he would be risking his job and career. At the same time, Tom’s managers were under so much pressure that they weren’t about to tell Tom to do whatever he wanted with his time.
Tom’s story does not have a happy ending. The CEO doesn’t get wind of Tom’s great ideas and promote him. Tom never succeeded in convincing anyone at Turnstyle of anything. Tom clocked in, did his job with care and precision, and kept his superiors happy and his innovative mouth shut. The company staggered from client to client, not failing, but not succeeding in the way Tom knew was possible.
One day, during a company meeting, the CEO made an announcement. Turnstyle was hiring a leading consulting company. Tom was excited. Things would get better, he thought. And they did. Three months and $300,000 later, the consultants presented their report with a series of recommendations. Of the four, two were ideas that Tom had told me over beers more than a year before. People at the company were so excited and grateful they threw a party for the consultants in appreciation.
Turnstyle’s story of strategic planning and hiring consultants is a depressingly familiar solution to the problem of change. Consultants can feel like a shortcut because they can act outside an organization’s culture, offering a less disruptive way to harvest and marshal new ideas. But they come at a steep price both financially and in the form of missed opportunities for improvement and engagement. And, all too often, their proposals result in lackluster success.
Tom was a humble guy. He didn’t mind that his company would spend multiples of his annual salary for ideas he had had for more than a year. But it’s interesting to ponder an alternative approach. How could Tom have led change on his own? How could Turnstyle have built a culture that would have unfrozen Tom’s permission paralysis?
What about Tom’s manager? They weren’t helpful at all. And the CEO micro-managing. Isn’t that the problem?
Tom’s managers, VPs, and CEO weren’t open to Tom’s new ideas and shut him down. If Tom’s manager, VP, and the CEO had been more open-minded, maybe Tom’s ideas would have had a much better chance of success. To understand if open-minded managers are the solution to change, let’s look at another case of a budding change leader, whose managers were more open-minded to change.