The higher, the simpler

4 04 2011

Granted myself a day off today, after what has been a rather hectic 5 or 6 weeks.  Made a large pot of green tea, read John Adair’s Inspirational Leadership in a single sitting (Socratic dialogue lives; profundity without density) and then walked about 12 km through the jungle to Bukit Timah in the noon-day sun. As Dilbert’s friend Wally once said, “It turns out I am insane, but apparently I am one of the happy kind…”

Lots of very interesting encounters to process in the last few weeks, but here is the one of the emerging themes: the closer to the top of any organisation you get, the less technical the real issues are. Or, put another way: the higher you go, the simpler it gets.

Simpler, not simplistic. Fred in Customer Relations may be deciding between 3 IT vendors and their competing platforms, and doing so on the basis of immensely detailed technical specs; Carol the CEO meanwhile is deciding between black and white. The difference is that Fred’s decision – by no means insignificant – has at best a 3-5 year horizon. Carol’s decision will affect the destiny of the company for the next 25 years. And behind Carol’s seemingly simple choice lie multiverses – diverse possible futures, at least half of which will collapse and disappear when she makes her call. Think Lou Gerstner calling IBM back to its core: Servers and Services. Goodbye Printers and Laptops (and, of course, hello Lexmark and Lenovo).

This is hardly a new thought, but the aspect of this simplicity that has been striking me most forcibly is that it means that problems at the top of an organisation often reduce to one thing: unrecognised, unacknowledged differences of perspective and perception.

Down where Fred dwells, there will be “wars of religion” – open source versus proprietary, off the shelf versus customised or bespoke – and so on. Many of these disagreements will also be ultimately driven by differences of perception, but there is room for people to be right or wrong about technical issues. Up where Carol operates, where vision of credible and possible futures is pretty much all there is to work with, perception is pretty much everything; and unrecognised, uncategorised differences of perception will impact not just a single issue or question, but the whole landscape. When Carol calls “black” and two of her three C-level reports agree with her, is that because she has understood and found wanting the reasons the third person had for keeping “white” in play? Or are they – unknowingly – seeing the future from such different perspectives, that what each means by “black” or “white” is quite different.

A couple of concrete examples, slightly disguised. Global player in its field, formed by a series of well-spaced mergers and acquisitions over the last 25 years. Scratch this organisation anywhere and find that the sum of the whole is much less than the sum of its parts (in other words, the merged organisation underperforms pretty much any of the original constituent organisations); and yet in every one of those areas it has long-time industry experts enough and to spare. They don’t need smarter people or more technical know-how; how could they, they wrote all the reference books. So what? Well, they might need some objective help to understand just how differently they (and their original organisations) were and are seeing the world.

Other end of the scale. Entrepreneurial team of 5 (still the top of the organisation; the mountain is just a lot lower). All have huge track record in their field (in fact the leader comes from a dynasty in that field, and definitely brings more than just his genes to the part; he has done it all). All except for one member of the team, that is. This person is the lightning rod for all disagreements, and guess what – comes from an entirely different business background. The team mostly see the issue as how to get this fifth person onboard with the vision and plan; impartial external advisers see the real issue as how to get these industry experts to listen to the one person who sees what they don’t, and could therefore save them all from the impending train wreck when their lopsided perception takes them off the rails.

All of which means that finding an objective means by which  to synchronise or calibrate perception, and differences of perspective, is potentially priceless at the upper echelons of any enterprise.

Thank you, Dr Birkman…