A simple exercise that leaders can do, either on their own with paper and pen, or with their management team, is to play detectives with the contradictions in practices. Try it!
We often aim at a list of desired outcomes and think that what we do in daily practice is by definition consistent with those desires. But our organizational life is full of paradoxes, some institutional and systemic, more difficult to fix, and some more personal and self-inflicted.
Any behaviour, set of behaviours, routines, practices, etc, remain stable only because they are reinforced. There are no other ways. No mystery. The reinforcement mechanisms may be visible or invisible, obvious or opaque, conscious or unconscious. But they are.
Confronted with a behaviour, routine, process that you don’t want, you may be tempted to ask why. Sure. Good question. But the most accurate discovery of an Original Why may not be sufficient to change it now. A better question is ‘what is reinforcing this?’ There is always something, a reinforcement, perhaps another practice.
Here are some examples of these contradictions to keep you started on that quest.
We want team effort and team performance, but people are rewarded by their individual contributions
We want agility and flexibility, but we love hiring process junkies
Or, perhaps, we want robust processes but we tell people to be very creative, flexible and bypass them
We want innovation, which requires trial and error, prototyping, playing, but we preach zero defects and ‘doing it right first time’
We ask people to take a broad view, a strategic one, a helicopter view, but we tell them to laser focus on an topic or issue, and ‘not getting distracted’.
We want broad cultural transformation but we ask the teams involved to focus on cost cutting mainly.
I am sure you can add a dozen or so of your own practices.
Contradictions are not always solvable, but the worse situation is when they are opaque or simply we are not aware of them. That is a problem bigger than the contradiction itself.
If you want A, but systematically you are reinforcing B, (1) you get lots of Bs, (2) , your credibility goes down and (3) you will consume more painkillers for your headaches and other aches.
Very often in the mystery of organizational life the clue is that there is no mystery. The mysterious, annoying outcomes are more predictable than night and day.