Corporate Change #2 – Why are companies so inwardly focused?

In part 1 of this series, we discussed one key reason companies fail to change even though it’s vital: the inability to, using John Kotter’s term, “bring the outside in.” In other words, companies don’t choose to look outside their walls to see what’s happening around them, assess the implications, and absorb that into their strategies, products and operations.

Why is this so?

Reason #1 – The Community Effect
A company, as it expands from one person, to ten, to one hundred, to a thousand and beyond, takes on the identity of a community. The employees usually work in an office or plant together. They get information from the same sources–the company newsletter, intranet, staff meetings (more on that later). They spend more time with other employees than with anyone else other than family. A culture develops that inspires curiosity about what’s happening inside and reduces it about what’s happening outside.

Reason #2 – Leadership Arrogance
I talked to a former client last week and told him about some work I’m doing mining insights from customer-service calls. He told me, “Our CEO thinks he’s just like our customers.” Since this CEO sees himself as a perfect proxy, there’s no reason to dig deeply into customers’ feelings.

Reason #3 – Information Flows Top-Down
Leadership serves on outside boards, goes to conferences, talks with consultants. They are tasked with creating strategy, which requires some curiosity and information about the world outside the corporate walls. They process that information into strategy documents, brand images, mission statements, etc., and send it down the line.

Leadership likes orderly information, not the messiness that real engagement with the outside world creates. Most leaders believe that employees don’t want that much engagement (in some cases they may be right). Employees realize that the highly-packaged, spun information that they receive is bland and biased. I recently re-encountered a saying familiar from my early working days: “We workers are like mushrooms. Leadership keeps us in the dark and feeds us s–t.” I heard that expression countless times till I became a senior leader–interestingly, I never heard it after that.

Combine reasons 1, 2 & 3 and you have an inwardly-focused, uncurious company. Information is either packaged pablum from above, or internal gossip. Conduits to the outside–front-line customer service reps, retail clerks, B2B sales people–are drowned out by the inside talk. Marketing communications staffs engage with the external but are dedicated to sending out messages or countering negative news.

What we’ve created here is company-as-fortress. Suspicious of the outside, comfortable with colleagues, uncurious. Information is routinized and bleached of content and contrast. Clearly, there’s a lot to be done to realize Kotter’s prescription to bring the outside in. We’ll begin discussing how in the next post.

Other posts in this series:
Part 1 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Related posts:
A competitive advantage: employees who spend their day talking to people
Time to start listening to front-line employees

Reading List:
Gary Hamel, “The Future of Management”
John Kotter, “A Sense of Urgency”

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