Habitual Rationalizations That Kill: Five Self-Inflicted Fallacies That Undermine Transformation

By Jarrod Shappell

Tuesday, July 15th 2014

When it comes to leading enterprise transformation, everyone knows that the odds of failure are ridiculously high. Most research studies cite 70-80% of them fail. Goodness knows why anyone would ever bother to try, but we suppose if no leader were ever courageous enough to try, how would our enterprises thrive and adapt? Of all the countless forces that torpedo transformative endeavors, none is more agonizing to watch than those leaders inflict on themselves. Bad enough when markets turn, economic headwinds flare up when commodity costs skyrocket, an unforseen glitch in a new product derails the launch, or the CEO and the board announce a majoracquisition whose priority will trump your work, putting it off another year.

But when transformational efforts collapse at the hands of the very leaders sitting at their helm, few things are more painful to watch. Sadly, this can take on many forms, but these five seem to be prevalent in organizational life. They are:

  1. The myth of the mandate
  2. Excessive tolerance
  3. Going native
  4. Dismissing the devil you know
  5. Reporting enmeshment

The stories all begin with inspiration

We work with business leaders who have tremendous vision for the future of the organizations they lead. They are well-intentioned women and men with a clear picture in their minds for an innovative product, a new organizational structure, a strategy that will trump a competitor's move, a way into a new market, or a strategic face lift for the organization. These charismatic leaders are promoted or hired to put wind back in the sails of an organization, and their work often begins with gale force.

The cinema that is the transformation inauguration always begins with the same scene. The leader schedules a meeting with all stakeholders and makes a provocative and clear case for her vision. She then holds a town meeting for the entire organization and there are outbreaks of applause throughout the presentation. At the end of the town hall the employees' questions are answered flawlessly and there is a sense that change has finally arrived. This time things will be different!

Then the presentation fades to black and the podium is put away. The work begins. There is pressure from the board for immediate results. There are supply chain complications that need to be addressed by product development because new product specs don't fit the existing manufacturing capabilities. The company's main competitor has an unforeseen product launch for which the response won't be ready for six months. The go-to-market partner in China suddenly decides to renegotiate the contract in the 11th hour. Suddenly, the high-spirited, ideologial honeymoon period ends and it feels as if the sails are again empty of the wind necessary to power through to the gloriously-promised new world.

Many authors and consultants focus on a leader's first 100 days in a new position. While these days are crucial for setting expectations, connecting with employees, and sharing a compelling message, the days that soon follow are equally as important. We have found that as soon as the honeymoon period ends there are many destructive voices that enter the head of a leader, and if not confronted, these habitual rationalizations will guarantee that the transformation that you and others are pining for will be sunk. To be sure, there are many forces that can conspire to undermine organization transformation - often whose favor the odds of success elude. Over the next few weeks, we will be discussing five of the most fatally treacherous and ironically common self-inflicted fallacies that undermine your leadership and the transformation of your organizations. The first is:

The Myth of the Mandate: Repeating Yesterday's Wins

Rationalization: I've done this before and I was hired (or promoted) to do it again.

Reality: What I did before is evidence that I have wisdom I can apply, but is not a repeatable formula.

In your last position, you directed the marketing campaign that turned around a slowly dying brand. Your ability to understand consumer insights and to inspire your team turned a simple story into a successful multi-channel campaign. You were celebrated within your organization and were invited to speak about the campaign's success at industry conferences. The campaign's success had other organizations coveting your talent and throwing C-suite offers in your direction. One of those organizations was looking to fill a CMO roll - the career destination you'd been eyeing for years and likely were never going to reach in your current organization. While a bit of a leap from your current position, the suitor organization was convinced that you had the skills necessary to help take their company to new market positions and revitalize an equally tired brand portfolio - in an entirely different industry, with entirely different consumers, and radically different products. Mere technicalities, you thought. You said yes and took your seat on the 32nd floor as their new Chief Marketing Officer.

It's natural to look at a rival's staff and wonder who could help the business. It is natural that one successful and notable project can launch a career into higher positions of authority and responsibility. This is a common story for many of the business leaders with which we work. Leaders, and the organizations that hire them, believe their strengths and approach can transfer from one organization to another. Just as a professional basketball team spends tens of millions of dollars on a superstar free agent to improve their team's performance, organizations believe that the excellence of one player from another organization will translate flawlessly to their own game. The classic case of "he transformed the Supply Chain in his last organization, and that's what we need done here, so he'll work out great" is a fatal assumption - an assumption that is often the first domino in disintegrating careers and losing ground in the pursuit of transformation.

To the entering leader who is feeling off-balance and in dire need to prove himself, it feels like a mandate. The operative narrative in his head sounds something like, "they hired me because of my past success and are expecting me to repeat it here. I don't want to let them down, I want to make sure they know they made the right call bringing me here." Thus, to achieve the results, the inclination is to try to replicate the approach you took in getting them the first time. BIG mistake. Perhaps in the first months the leader feels as if he has original ideas to offer, and transformation is afoot. However, as the honeymon period ends and the tireless work of maintaining a vision and keeping a team motivated exhausts the leader, he may think to himself, "all I have to do is repeat the previously successful campaign. Perhaps a tweak here or there, but otherwise it's good to go. That is why they hired me after all!" Or more likely he is thinking, "I don't understand why this isn't working! I'm doing everything I did the first time (or first two times, three times...) and this was a slam dunk, but for some reason it's not moving the needle. Maybe I just need to push harder." With that dangerous conclusion, leaders exert more will, intensify the pressure, and become more intractable in their doggedness, merely hitting the fast-forward button to their demise. Relying on what has been successful in your past, while understandable and instinctual, shows the fine line between using your strengths and hiding behind yesterday's wins.

This very story happened in one of our organizations when they poached a rising marketing star from Proctor & Gamble, the consumer products marketing mecca. He was impressive, having turned around two failing business lines there. When he arrived at our client organization looking to breathe life into their challenged business, he failed to recognize the early signs of failure. He came from a skincare business - a well-defined consumer with targeted, precisely- and scientifically-defined needs and product benefits. Now he was in a business whose landscape was dramatically shifting from a consumer business to a technology business - a business whose consumers and their needs were in dynamic flux and for whom technology was becoming a non-traditional competitor. He knew nothing about this business or its markets and worked to slap on the same marketing solutions that turned around the skincare business. Of course it was a disaster, and eventually the organization fired him. The rationalization that yesterday's tactics would fit today's problems created three years of damaged morale and wasted investments.

This rationalization is sneaky because when you are particularly talented at something and those talents have been rewarded, it is difficult to pause and consider that perhaps other skills are needed to accomplish transformation in this new context. This begins in childhood. Were you ever bribed with the promise of candy if you finished your meal? Early-childhood experts claim that as early as nine months old, we can begin to understand which actions get rewarded and which do not. Like children, as adults we maximize our behavior believing that if we were rewarded once for a specific behavior, the same results will come the next time. In the context of organizational transformation and leading change, this is problematic. Organizational cultures always vary, and the rules for reward change in every position, organization, and relationship. What was once a rewarded skill may not be what is necessary for success in a different context and, in fact, in a different context, may be a liability. Healthy collaboration in one environment is weakness and indecisiveness in another. Managerial courage in one company plays out as self-promoting in another. Context is everything.

So how does one ensure that this rationalization does not take root? It begins by admitting that although you were given authority because of your previous success, it is not the previous outcome that gives you clout, but rather it is the wisdom that you gathered during that success. While you may have overhauled the supply chain, nailed the product launch, or redesigned finance, it is the insights that you gained as you did so that will be vital to your next work. The principles of change and the required mindsets for overcoming opposition will not accept a cookie-cutter repeat. Tactics, templates, and tools will be minimally helpful. But your wisdom - your ability to listen well, your vision for young talent, your instincts about when to push and when to be patient, your understanding of how to solve problems - is what will prove most valuable as you engage in your next transformation attempt.

While you may have been hired because of who you are, it is equally important that you understand when and where you are. This is the work of contextualization. When joining a new organization, study the environment you are entering and be sure you fully grasp its culture, challenges, markets, people, and pathologies. This takes time. Walk the hallways, talk to both those above and below you within the organization, and even ask peers in the industry about your organization's reputation. Once you have an idea of the context you are entering, then you can fully appreciate how it differs from your previous experience. With this understanding in hand, you can start trying to apply what you learned from previous successes, adapting that wisdom as it is appropriate.

It is also important to note that the fallacy that yesterday's wins are mandated is more than just self-created. It was likely fueled in the hiring process, and the mandate may be emanating as much from your hiring executive's mouth as your psyche. Your reputation precedes you. There have been board meetings, memos, and hallway conversations about your arrival. Those doing the hiring often assume that the accomplishments received previously will arrive regardless of the context. While risky, it is important to have candid conversations about the time required for you to listen and understand the context of the organization in which you now lead. While you may have been successful before, building your leadership flexibility and versatility will require that you talk with colleagues and superiors so that expectations are realistic.

Yesterday's wins are newspaper fodder. Tomorrow's successes require willingness to refine great skills and develop new ones. Rather than believing the mandate, get to know your context and let your imagination roam. What is possible? What is the optimal future for your organization? And how can the wisdom you received from the past make the dream a reality?

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