Our Approach

Making the complex clear

The challenge of complexity comes in many guises. And the challenge is often so acutely felt that we focus on the content rather than question our approach to complexity itself. The examples below are typical points where complexity is so great that we frequently stumble.

From strategic plan to execution

Organizations are formed to organize and enable people to pursue complex goals. While organizations often spend considerable energy identifying those goals, their ability to translate their goals into results is usually their Achilles' heel.

Moving from the visionary or strategic into the operational and tactical means an exponential increase in the number of variables and the complexity of their interactions. Personal agendas begin to encroach on corporate goals. Vulnerabilities to labor markets, competitor behavior, and technological changes can make well-crafted strategies suddenly obsolete. As the strategic plan is parsed out to the organization, integrating the disparate efforts starts to become overwhelming. Developing new skill sets, attitudes, values, or infrastructure can easily compromise current operations.

It is no surprise that most strategic plans slowly evaporate, overwhelmed by more pressing tactical challenges.

Not-for-profit governance

Who would have thought that doing good would be so damn hard! Yet not-for-profit and public sector boards routinely stumble over the tension between vision and operations. With all the best intentions, boards often slide from oversight into meddling. And pulling back to vision, mission and policy leaves most boards vaguely uneasy that they are shirking their fiduciary responsibility to watch over the organization. But even the simple act of reviewing a budget can tempt even the most disciplined to delve too deeply into operational issues.

Most boards go through predictable crises as they evolve from support to managing to governing in their leadership. There is a road map, and the pot holes are well articulated. Boards wanting to improve their quality of leadership can work from established models that clarify their best practice.

The limits of formal structure

As the number of employees grows, the difficulty of finding the right formal structure grows even more. The organizational chart ought to clarify lines of authority and communication, but even the most modest org chart is inevitably re-written by the informal systems that emerge in and amongst the boxes on the chart. Personal relationships (trust, rapport, credibility) overwhelm carefully framed formal links.

Carefully written job descriptions seem like the obvious complement to the organizational chart. And still a substantial amount of "organizational knowledge" seems to walk out the door with every staff changeover. As much as we try to capture the wisdom of the organization in manuals, procedures, or documentation, most of it still seems to reside in the informal structures that live independent of any executive's intention or statement.

The reality of corporate culture

Are the people working late "dedicated employees" or "exploited fools"? Do frequent changes flow from "robust innovation" or "chaotic management"? Are senior executives "visionary" or "living in the clouds"? Are company managers "supportive" or "micro-managers"? The distinctions are critical, but they're made by the culture of the company, not by any leadership or management choices. We all live in a soup of symbols and stories and icons within which we make sense out of experience. And the sense employees make of their work experience determines their morale, loyalty, and energy.

Most executives are loathe to attempt to create and manage "the culture". It is such an ambiguous, vague construct. It emerges unbridled from the thousands of conversations, glances, gestures, and grimaces that pass between employees everyday. It leaves its mark on every executive statement or action. It annotates every document and plan. It adds a layer of complexity that is easy to deny but inevitably impossible to avoid.

The role of leadership

Those who look to leaders expect them to be "in control", to see through to the next level. But those who lead are often frustrated at their inability to direct the organization effectively, or even to see clearly what the next steps should be. Leaders don't run the organization, they ride it. Any reasonably large organization has its own momentum, its own organic integrity. It can be poked and prodded, but not controlled. The business world is littered with leaders who tried to direct an organization without first winning it over.

The mantra of the MBA graduate may be to plan, direct, monitor, and control. But real organizations are more responsive to heart, integrity, and courage. Supposedly leaders should posit the vision that galvanizes the organization. But the real challenge is getting everyone to think with the vision, which requires something more than persuasion and structured rewards. Profitability may be the outcome for which the corporation is created, but the most direct path to improved outcomes is to focus on how people think and how they make sense of their situation. Rewards can shape behavior, but only relationships can impact how people think.

Copyright © 2004 Jerry L. Talley
169 Sherland Avenue, Mountain View, CA 94043
Phone: (650) 967-1444