Managers at Work
"I joined a new company as a department head recently. When I interviewed, the hiring managers said they wanted to streamline processes and get rid of waste and bureaucracy. I think they saw me as some kind of change agent, which was great, but I had no idea what I was really in for. The processes and procedures (including many paper-based systems) are so complicated and so entrenched it makes my head spin. When I've raised questions, people seem very negative. Where to begin?"
It's certainly easy to give up in this circumstance. After spending time in that environment, you might think there is no point in going any farther because changing anything would be too difficult.
But those managers did bring you in for a reason. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that you can't do anything about the problem.
"Many people think they don't have the power or the influence to do anything about the situation they're in," says Ron Ashkenas, a senior partner with Schaffer Consulting in Connecticut and author of "Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexities in Your Organization and Get Things Done." "Many people feel that there are forces around them that make it impossible to do anything. They say, 'The customers want it this way' or 'The boss or board wants it done this way, so what can I do?'"
Psychologist Martin Seligman calls this "learned helplessness"-the belief that because of regulations, legislation, budget cuts or some other external circumstance, no one can take action to improve a situation.
After a while, Ashkenas says, this belief grows into an excuse that becomes the standard response to any proposal or initiative. This mistaken belief can spread from group to group and department to department, and pretty soon everyone's hands are tied.
"The analogy I always use is that people put boxes around themselves," he says. "We draw the boundaries of the box. We can also re-create the boundaries of the box."
Your task, then, is to push the boundaries of the box a little. Pick a few of these processes and see what you can do. If there is a report, for example, that is sent out regularly but apparently is not useful, just stop sending it and see what happens, Ashkenas says. "See if anyone says anything. If you get no response, chances are no one was looking at it in the first place."
Another option: Post it on the wall and call people to ask them if they need it. "What managers need to do is empower themselves and their people to ask these questions," Ashkenas says.
In an ideal world, you would have allies to pull people together and address these changes. But you can't wait until they show up on your doorstep, Ashkenas says. "Go find one. Go to the boss or pull a group together and ask them, 'Why are we doing this?'"
In situations like this, people imagine that the risks are so much worse than they really are.
"Obviously, If you ask the question the wrong way, it will make people defensive and angry," he says. "But because you're new, it's the perfect time to ask these questions."
The task is complicated by the use of paper-based systems, if you have them. While many people criticize them, these paper-based processes still exist, he says.
"Many companies are the product of a number of acquisitions that are cobbled together over a number of years," Ashkenas says. "Their own computer mechanisms, their own reports don't all connect with each other. While large companies have these large integrated information systems, many smaller companies don't have the resources to invest in those. And even with a significant investment, it can be difficult to keep up. It's a never-ending struggle."
Adding to the hard-copy issue is that many people aren't as organized as they should be and don't use virtual filing systems well, he says.
Another factor is regulation. Many companies in regulated environments often blame federal regulators for their lack of progress on initiatives. In his Harvard Business Review blog, Ashkenas cited a colleague's experience in trying to improve decision-making in GE's former nuclear business. He had the managers list all the procedures, reviews, metrics, audits, standing meetings and processes and then asked them to identify which ones the government required and which were created internally. "A fairly small number came from regulators. The rest were all self-generated," he says.
So the bottom line is that effective managers need to develop a "core competency" in simplification. "All of these processes are like weeds in the garden," he says. "They keep growing back. Managers have to root them out to streamline and simplify."
Certainly, it will take self-confidence and courage to get going. "Pick your spots and pace yourself," he says. "Find ways of building on small successes rather than changing everything all at once."
Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585) 249-9295 or by email at email@example.com/6/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.