Despite decades of progress in management theory, production methods, business technology, and talent management, senior managers still routinely lament how hard it is to get anything meaningful done in their organizations.
Whether responding to changing customer demands, forecasting how much they’ll spend or where new sources of income will come from, hiring more staff, or even buying things from suppliers, few firms can honestly claim that they are nimble as they would desperately like to be. More commonly, leaders complain about the “drag” they feel when trying to accomplish anything remotely complicated or time consuming.
Some of the culprits for this sloth begin outside the firm’s walls: changing – and expanding – regulatory regimes, complex buying processes, and technological disruptions put pressure on the way employees share information, make decisions, or run their company’s operations.
At the same time, cheap money and constant investor pressure for more growth have accelerated merger and acquisition activity. This has left many senior executive teams sitting on top of “franken-companies” with incompatible systems, cultures, and processes. Further, the growing abundance of information across the full range of the firm’s operations too often muddies instead of sharpens decisions. No wonder managers feel dragged down.
Problems of Our Own Making
And they aren’t alone. If you ask employees about how easy or hard their companies make their work, you’re likely to hear a similar refrain. They will often say that they must check boxes and jump through hoops for a whole host of functional teams: Legal, Compliance, Procurement, Marketing, HR, IT, and Finance to name a few that have good reason to care about employees’ choices. Almost all individuals at a large company seemed to have resigned themselves to the frustration of drag.
Organizations see this, and do try to help. But, worryingly often, that help, while well-intended, misses the mark. For example, leadership teams commonly ask Corporate Communications or Marketing to come up with a single story – a “corporate narrative” – to unify the mishmash of messages that confuses employees and blurs their focus.
But the process for building these narratives too often fails to consider the needs of the people who will make most use of them – managers, marketers, sales reps, and HR professionals, to name four. The result is that the narrative is often left unused, and the confusion felt by employees, customers, and suppliers is matched only by the frustration of the executive team that asked for the narrative to be created in the first place.
Cautionary Sales Tales
Some responses to the problems of drag are even more damaging. In many companies, managers unintentionally exacerbate the very thing they are trying to reduce.
The experience in sales teams provides a cautionary example. Like other leaders, heads of sales are keenly aware of the challenges that their teams face and are dedicating resources to help sellers.
But the growing number of support systems and staff meant to help have simply created a new burden that sellers now avoid or use only grudgingly – all of which saps productivity. In marked contrast, the best sales teams are ruthlessly removing steps, tasks and systems – including supposedly “helpful” things – from the sales process and seeing better results for it.
A Better Way Forward
It’s hard to imagine a point in the near future when all this drag will just go away, and it’s something leaders will need to fight for some time.
Notably, the companies that are winning that fight not only concentrate on simplification and focus, but also develop a deep understanding of their employees’ work flows and needs, and then orient their responses around that understanding.
This series of posts will use real life examples to explain how functional leaders have found innovative ways to change work flows and intervene to contain and mitigate the drag that all big companies now face.