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We Need To Stop Doubling Down On Bad Ideas

2022 March 27
by Greg Satell

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a number of organizations and each one involved a series of steep learning curves. Even the most successful operations do some things poorly, so managing an enterprise involves constant improvement. You always want to figure out where you can do things better.

One way to do that is to identify other organizations that do something well and adopt best practices. Copying what others do won’t make you world class, but it will get you started on the right road. Over time, you can learn which practices are a good fit for your organization and which are not. As you progress, you can begin to develop your own capabilities.

What you don’t want to do is to take bad ideas that have failed try and force them through, yet it happens all the time. Business pundits and consultants don’t stop selling zombie ideas just because they don’t work and people don’t stop getting taken in by slick sales jobs. We need to be much more discerning about the ideas we adopt. Here are some to watch out for.

The War On Talent

When some McKinsey consultants came up with the idea of a war for talent in 1998, it made a lot of sense. In a knowledge economy, your people are your greatest resource. Creating a culture of excellence, rewarding top employees and pruning out the laggards just seemed like such an obvious formula for success that few questioned it.

However, even early on some began to see flaws. Just a few years after McKinsey launched the concept, Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer explained how study after study refuted the “War for Talent” hypothesis. He found that firms who followed the “talent war mind set” ended up actually undermining their people and overemphasizing recruiting from outside.

Even worse, McKinsey’s approach often creates a corrosive culture. By valuing individual accomplishment over teamwork, leaders set up a competitive dynamic that discourages collaboration while sabotaging the knowledge transfer that promotes learning new skills and improves performance. In a New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell explained how that kind of competitive dynamic contributed to Enron’s downfall.

The truth is that you don’t need the best people, you need the best teams and that requires a very different approach. Fostering collaboration requires an environment of psychological safety, not a series of performance review cage matches. Talent isn’t something you attract and bid for, it is something you build.

The Cult Of Disruption 

It’s become fashionable to say that we live in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). The term first arose in the aftermath of the Cold War, when a relatively stable conflict between two global superpowers fragmented into a multipolar multiethnic clash of civilizations. Today, however, it has become so firmly entrenched in the business lexicon that nobody even thinks to question it. Change has become gospel.

If you see the world in turmoil, the only sensible strategy is to constantly change and adapt. Perhaps just as importantly, in a corporate setting you need to be seen as changing and adapting. In this environment, managers have significant incentives to launch multiple initiatives aimed at transforming every aspect of the enterprise.

Yet do businesses really face a VUCA environment? The evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. A Brookings report showed that business has become less dynamic, with less churn among industry leaders and fewer new entrants. Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research found decreased competitive environments. A report from the IMF also suggests that these trends have worsened during the pandemic.

Make no mistake, all of the happy talk about change has a real cost. A study undertaken by PwC found that 65% of executives surveyed complained about change fatigue, and only about half felt their organization could deliver change successfully. 44% said that they don’t understand the change they’re being asked to make, and 38% say they don’t agree with it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it found that most people have come to view new transformation initiatives suspiciously, taking a “wait and see” attitude undermining the momentum and leading to a”boomerang effect” in which early progress is reversed when leadership moves on to focus other priorities. In other words, we’re basically talking change to death.

Marching On Washington

The March on Washington remains one of the most iconic moments in American history. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech continues to inspire people around the world. The events of that day surely contributed to the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and made the world a better place.

So it’s no wonder that it seems like every time someone has an idea for change they plan a march. Yet the most salient aspect of over 100 years of marches on Washington is that none, except that one in 1963, have really accomplished much. In fact the very first one, in support of women’s suffrage in 1913, was a full blown disaster.

It’s not just social revolutionaries that make this mistake. Corporate change advocates have their own version of marching on Washington. They set up a big kickoff event to “create a sense of urgency” around change and use stark language like “innovate or die” and “burning platform” to make change seem inevitable.

The problem is that if a change is important and has real potential to impact what people believe and what they do, there will always be those who will hate it and they will work to undermine it in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive. Creating a lot of noise at the beginning of an initiative, before any real progress has been made, just gives your opposition a head start in their efforts to kill it off.

Closing The Knowing-Doing Gap

Business today moves fast. So we like simple statements that speak to larger truths. It always seems that if we can find a simple rule of thumb—or maybe 3 to 5 bullet points for the really big picture stuff—managing a business would be much easier. Whenever a decision needs to be made, we could simply refer to the rule and go on with our day.

Unfortunately, that often leads to cartoonish slogans rather than genuine managerial wisdom. Catchy ideas like “the war for talent,” “a VUCA world” and “creating a sense of urgency around change” end up taking the place of thorough analysis and good sense. When that happens, we’re in big trouble.

The problem is, as Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, “no course of action can be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.” Rules often appear to make sense on the surface, but when we try to apply them in the real world we run into trouble. We live in a complex universe and oversimplifying it leads us astray.

We need to stop worshiping the cult of ideas and start focusing on the problems we need to solve. The truth is that the real world is a confusing place. We have little choice but to walk the earth, pick things up along the way and make the best judgments we can. The decisions we make are highly situational and defy hard and fast rules. There is no algorithm for life. You have to actually live it, see what happens and learn from your mistakes.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. March 27, 2022

    Greg, I’ve really enjoyed reading your prose for years. Thank you. I’m involved in a significant transformation of a large international company. The caution you offer here – to not created Kool-aide phrases for building performance culture – is spot on. Wittgenstein also wrote, ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my mind.’ The ideas we choose determine what we see and also what we don’t see. To be clear: what we see or don’t see – together. I’ve watched simplistic yet easily parroted phrases seduce executives into believing they are fueling capacity for change and competitive agility, not reflecting on how the language they chose and reward repetition of can restrict possibility.

  2. March 27, 2022

    Yes. I think there is a tendency to cheerlead change, which makes snappy phrases and slogans attractive, rather than focusing on the challenges that need to be solved.

    Thanks Robert.

    – Greg

  3. April 4, 2022

    expatiate more on doubling down on bad decisions.

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