La Fontaine wrong? You’ve got to be kidding!
We all know the tragic ending of the frog that wanted to be bigger than an ox. It swelled and swelled thanks to to thoughtless ambitions until it simply exploded. But what happens when an ox wants to be as agile as a frog? Can you really see it leaping from one lilypad to the other without sinking like a stone?
By a strange mirror effect, we see large companies today dreaming of becoming start-ups and start-ups dreaming of becoming the masters of the world. The large enterprises, overweight due to overloaded bureaucracy and under pressure from ever-more finicky regulatory agencies, suffer in silence as they try their best to rustle up new energy and regain their youthful, entrepreneurial muscle. As for the start-ups, they wear themselves out in a race for investors in which most never even reach the finish line. Those who do find that at the peak of their glory they must respond like Google did this summer in order to satisfy the scrutiny of a fickle market that constantly requires proof of profitability in the midst of chaos.
ICM’s clients are large, intelligent and powerful enterprises. They want to be agile and they don’t want to sink like a stone. And so, like many others they are caught in a difficult dilemma:
How to implement rigorous processes required for risk management and increase agility through
Break through the bureaucratic cement lid
Bureaucracy is fine so long as it contributes to risk management and clarification. But it’s only a means to an end, not the end itself. Thanks to the masses of information it preserves, bureaucracy holds the entire history of an enterprise or administration. But it becomes problematic when it proliferates—when paralysis and fossilization turn it into political justification for the most conservative of views, attitudes and positions.
In our world of on-going mobility and constant adjustments, finicky monitoring is itself a major risk. At the same time, other highly unlikely risk factors linked to only a few individuals never get picked up by the system and can end in disaster. We’ve seen that with pharmaceuticals, banks and most recently, the automobile industry. So how can executives, who generally truly want to see their huge enterprise develop agility and speed, break through the heavy lid of bureaucracy so they can provide meaning, creativity and speed to operational structures that are stifled by procedural complexity? How can they do this while avoiding the risks of too little control?
The challenge of controlled autonomy
Work in project mode has demonstrated its effectiveness over time. Renault’s Twingo was an example in its day—for many a first example. That’s leadership! Many examples followed in all sorts of businesses.
Today there’s a window of opportunity for large industrial bureaucracies to transform themselves into a network of innovative, reactive productive “cells”. Each one needs a project, a leader, a team, a plateau, resources and the authority to act. These cells will execute strategies using technologies, information systems and collaborative tools and will respond to the aspirations of a new generation that is dreaming about being in entrepreneurial start-ups and is not at all interested in getting on board a huge ocean tanker.
The key: focus on what is useful
These small cells can be used to strip superfluous bureaucracy, as LEAN initiatives have shown. It’s difficult for an organization to get rid of useless bureaucracy even when the very people who impose it complain about it. After all, even if they are meaningless, bureaucratic processes remain the economic and political “stuff” that keeps these people afloat. It gives them power: to block and slow down the potential for action and moving forward.
But in the end, we believe that human intelligence will win out and that the same people who impose these processes are in the best position to trim them down to the useful bits only. All they need is a shared objective, agreed ways of doing things and a code of conduct to safeguard trust and individual integrity. Why not take the risk and give them this project?
Surprise, inspire and reinforce the energy of innovative people
Support functions and operational teams will get excited about the “usefulness” criterion because it makes sense! Rote action is sterile and even damaging while getting into action is invigorating. We all dream about being involved in change or innovation or creation but it’s a risky business for an individual on his/her own. ICM has always believed that project teams, departments, functional units or divisions are the potentially close-knit “cells” where this kind of spirit can be shared. And bingo! You’ve got the teams that will trim the fat and the engagement for change that will make the difference.
ICM has accompanied and observed many of our clients increasing the number of these autonomous, accountable and coherent “cells”, both support and operational, and in this way respond to the start-up dream that is keeping executives awake at night. It’s a bet only they can make and a risk only they can take.