Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bureaucratic politics: the seventh systemic disease in organizations

A lot of buzz in an auction room. Small groups watch each other furtively. Bidding is about to start. Who will go home with what?

Maybe we should have started with this dynamic. It is so prevalent, that it often seems to be the natural condition: the way things are. Especially larger organizations are often like this: everyt issue, every plan, every decision, every action is turned into internal politics. People defend their turf, want to enlarge their turf or are eying for a next, bigger and better-paid turf. Is there an outside world? Yes, but mainly insofar it helps to define the turf, and influences who gets what money, prestige or power. Customers or clients, unless they represent big money, big prestige or big influence, are a necessary evil. They may have complaints and problems to solve, they have unrealistic expectations; basically they are a nuisance.

Is it possible to avoid or eliminate internal politics? No, it isn’t. But unattended it is a cancerous growth that will supplant all healthy tissue. It becomes especially evil when it is infected with fraud or corruption of any kind and when egotists at the top only allow other egotists to join their ranks.
What is the ideal counter-poison? Someone at the very top who has backing from external directors, with a direct interest in the services or products, in the end-users of these services and products, in the development and production of these services or products and the people who make that practically happen. Usually, but not necessarily, that person has come from the ranks.
Why is the top person so important? Isn’t that idolizing the strong man or the strong woman? No. The point is that such a person is essential to prevent people not really interested in these aspects to fill the positions below the top. The top person is not only a role model, but the only guarantee against empty careerists.

And not even that works always. Especially when the top executive is an entrepreneur who started his own company and the company becomes so big that he or she can’t handle everything anymore, such a person may be enamored by candidates for the number 2 position who come from bigger firms, often have very general backgrounds like financial and legal types. Marketing people are suspect, unless they have been in sales before. usually, marketing is for people who are too sensitive to engage in the rawer edges of the commercial world, like sales. Sales have the nasty habit that they often fail. Not all tenders are won, not every sales pitch hits home. And if you are too sensitive even for marketing? Then you can go into public relations. PR, darling, PR!

Of course both marketing and PR are legitimate functions, just like financial and legal work are. But they are more easily taken over by people with more form than substance. I have learned to watch for those managers who want to distance themselves as far as possible from the coal face, the place where real work is done. In public institutions it is often worse than in companies.
Now many companies are so big that you can’t expect top people to stay near to the primary process of developing, providing and selling products and services. There are simply too many products and services. So there the heroes are at the level of business unit managers. But size is less important than diversification. In huge companies of Shell or Apple the main products will still be known in the board room. There will be people there who actually held the new prototypes of the iPhone or know how an oil well and a refinery look like and smell.
But in a city it is possible that the manager of the sewage department has never seen or smelled a sewer and doesn’t plan to come near one.

In any organization internal politics is natural. But where reality is held at bay, internal politics take over. And good people leave, if they can. If left unstopped, the organization becomes a hollow organization, an empty legal and financial envelop. Everything is outplaced. The ideal of financial and legal types. Marketing types then preside over a collection of brands. They exploit trademarks.
When in a still large organization degeneration continues, this may change into the forth dynamic: executive psychopaths.

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