Unusual Subroutines

The blog and musings of Christopher Allen-Poole

Without Staff, There Are No Standards

Something which I was recently discussing with a colleague was her problem with her company's recent top-down initiatives. There was a series of major pushes in her company which she didn't feel were justified. Things had worked decently in the past but these changes seemed like a bad attempt at fixing something which was not broken.

The problem here wasn't actually the reforms. The reforms were probably well justified (I didn't really have visibility into whether or not they actually were). The problem was the approach.

There are two primary roles of the CEO (and this can be said of many of the C-level executives) – decision of business direction and cultivation of values. (A possible third might be choosing direct subordinates, but for now we'll consider that a part of "cultivation of values"). Part of this cultivation is clearly bringing new initiatives and reforms into a company, sometimes even reforms which are not the most popular among the rank-and-file.

Especially when the choice is between a series of potential targets, the person at the helm must take control. (I'm reminded of this video of Steve Jobs where someone berates him for making a particular business decision which ended up basically tanking a popular technology because it lost a major backer). That isn't a problem, and that type of decision happened at Apple regularly – a new technology or possibility was culled early because it did not fit with a broader technical plan. The problem in this case, though, was that the executive leadership did not spend time selling the middle-managers on the direction.

Once an organization has grown to the point of having a hierarchical communication model, where the executive doesn't necessarily have direct contact with all employees, the executive's first job in curating value is to make sure that there is an understanding of the "why" of a decision, at least on the managerial level (this isn't to say that the "why" isn't important in a company of fewer than 20 people, but without a hierarchical communication model theoretically there could be more direct communication and there would be fewer managers). If that understanding doesn't exist then the clear direction very rapidly devolves into confusion at best, resentment at worst.

Your managers don't need to know everything. Chances are they probably don't want or care to know. But before an initiative can succeed, they will need to have enough of a minimum threshold to be able to come up with a legitimate reason when someone asks why.

And people will ask why. If you've done your job and you have managed to create a company of smart, dedicated people, then a major change in process will require justification – even if it seems extraordinarily obvious, even if the benefits seem abundant, not everyone will know that.

I can't talk to the specifics of my colleague's situation, but I have seen these decisions go south at a couple of different companies. Inevitably, it's a case of an executive not bothering to follow-up and at least provide the opportunity for clarification.

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