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The Sleepwalkers Have Taken Over the Asylum

There's an English Bookshop on the main shopping street in the centre of Zurich. It's quintessentially English and apart from books you can purchase such goodies as Marmite and Coleman's English Mustard. I always wander in to browse whenever I'm in town with a few minutes to spare even though the prices here are astronomical so I have to demonstrate a huge amount of self-constraint. There isn't a great selection of "business" books, but there's usually something that catches my eye. Yesterday was no exception, and I was drawn to a title called "The Art of Non-Conformity" by Chris Guillebeau. Having spent most of the past 49 years being "different" you may ask why I need a book on the subject, but I did purchase it, along with a baby jar of Bovril for gravy making, and started reading it on the tram home.

The first chapter is entitled "Sleepwalkers and the Living World" and it got me thinking about some of the organisations that I've worked in, and how so many of them appear to have been organised by Sleepwalkers and are now managed along the same lines. In truth, some of them may even have employed the Living Dead rather than Sleepwalkers.

How many organisations have you been involved with that pride themselves of values like "People are our most valuable asset", "Employer of Choice", "People are our key differentiator against our competition", and of course "We Cherish and Promote Diversity"? Behind the self serving glossy brochure mission statement and value statements, most of these companies treat their people like idiots, stifle genuine efforts of bottom up improvements, and most importantly still deploy basic command and control organisational structures which lead to vast amounts of work being performed which adds no value to any of the real stakeholders, namely the customers and the staff performing the work.
Multiple governance structures, which are rarely joined up, create industrial strength status reporting and a plethora of obstacles which need to be overcome before real work can be performed. Chicken and egg scenarios are common place;  body A needs a form to be completed which needs body B to approve it but only when it is accompanied by another document which can't be approved until body A has approved the first form. You get the picture. And despite projects being reviewed to death by all and sundry, major issues are still rarely picked up until it's too late and corrective action is required because the preventative action was not taken in the first place. Status boards never take responsibility for their failure to spot the problem, it's always the project team that takes the flack.

But why the reference to the Sleepwalkers I hear you asking? The common factor in all these organisations is that they follow perceived wisdom, like Sleepwalkers, without thinking or questioning the logic or consequences of their actions. It's always been done this way, therefore it must be right. Well, the evidence doesn't really support that in my opinion. Projects still fail, budgets still overrun, products still have fatal flaws, and people who do the real work are still at the bottom of the food chain.

Far too many managers do Sleepwalk their way through their lives. It's time that organisations stood back a little way and started to look at the lumbering monstrosities of bureaucracy they have created. It's time that people in charge started to look at being non-conformist, and being genuinely different. History has given us precedents. Toyota, Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook changed the rulebook in many ways, although some of them may have used questionable alternatives, and some may be losing their way a little. Agile methods (when used according to the original principles) have shown that traditional project management techniques are not the only way. Lean (again when used properly) has shown how much non-productive work really goes on in the workplace, and Systems Thinking has shown us how flawed many of the internal processes companies traditionally use really are.

So here are a few ideas on how to be a bit more non-conforming in your organisation.
  • Dump the multitude of status reports and status reviews up the organisational hierarchy and get project teams to review each other. The people who do the work are much better placed to really see what's going on then a group of managers five levels up the line. Real project managers (not the people who call themselves project managers but are really line managers or team leads) have much more objective and subjective understanding of what's going on in a project. Of course, to do this you need to rethink much of the reliance on traditional project management KPIs and target setting, but that's probably a good thing as well.
  • Lose the process owners who haven't used "their" processes in real life for the last 20 years, and put ownership back into the collectives that do use them.
  • Question the role of line management which often doesn't understand what their reports actually do in the system, and which interferes in project because they happen to work at a particular level of hierarchical seniority.
  • Question the role of HR and a recruiting process that prefers inexperienced graduates over street wise project managers, engineers and internal consultants with proven track records of delivering.
  • Challenge the wisdom of hiring outrageously expensive external consultants (I'm cheap by the way!) who deliver little value, which is unsustainable after they leave, especially when some of that expertise may already be in-house, but you haven't been bothered to look for it
  • Think carefully about your next reorganisation and how it will affect the people who do the work. If you are going to disrupt your workforce, which are, after all, your most valuable asset, do it in such a way that they get the benefit not just the pain.
In any event, before you make any changes in your organisation, perhaps you could actually consult the workforce before the event, and get them involved throughout the change, maybe they could even lead it. Because there's a pretty good chance that they are only people in your organisation who are still awake!
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