Published in Mar-Apr 2022
In the corporate world, a cardinal sin is to appear incompetent. It is a prerequisite that everyone must know everything about their job as well as everything else, especially about new technology and innovation. Every CEO and every company like to believe they are working creatively and disrupting the market. Yet, when it comes to sustainability, many companies waste a lot of energy on useless exercises and practises, because they do not want to be perceived as incompetent.
This obsession has reached fever pitch and Tom Goodwin (one of the voices of reason out there), recently commented about this on LinkedIn. He described how, upon finding an old folder on his computer, he discovered it was full of presentations and work done on ideas that never materialised. He related this to a scenario (hypothetical or maybe not), whereby a CEO waiting at an airport flips through a magazine and comes across an article about new technology. He immediately takes a picture and sends it to his CIO or CMO, with the dreaded question: “What are we doing about this?” The company will immediately spring into action and start working on what the boss is interested in. However, according to Goodwin (he is probably speaking from experience), by the time the boss lands, the focus will have shifted to something else.
Goodwin goes on to talk about a phenomenon called ‘The Fractal Effect’ which states that the more work is done, the more work is needed. The more work and planning that takes place, the higher the chances are of the focus being lost. He gives the example of a staff meeting aimed at creating an event to motivate employees. In the beginning, there are discussions about who should attend and what topics should be covered and where to hold the meeting. However, the focus is soon diluted by trivial stuff. The team starts to talk about preparing a content marketing plan and hiring a videographer to show how good the event will have turned out to be – and soon, the meeting is transformed into a party planning one. The reason for this behaviour? According to Goodwin, because we do a lot of work to show we have done a lot of work, focusing on ‘busyness’ and not outcomes.
This brought to mind the time when I worked at Axact. We used to have monthly evaluations and the management had decided that the number of steps we carried out in doing a task would be an accurate measure of competence, productivity and performance. At one point a colleague gave me this tip: break down the steps into smaller steps – this way, my manager would know how hard I had really worked. The focus was not on completing the tasks and keeping the momentum going; rather, it was on the complexity (or the pretend complexity) of the task. This evaluation method continued until the CEO realised how ridiculous this was and that people were just exaggerating the complexities involved. The reason why the CEO could end this practice was because he started it in the first place. This incident, among others, led me to understand another point Goodwin makes: we never dare say no, especially to our bosses. Questioning authority is perceived as a sign of incompetence and the root cause of this is the fact that our education and the conditioning we receive from our parents and society have turned us into zombies by teaching us not to use our common sense and discouraging questioning the status quo.
Simon Sinek has made his name as a speaker and an author by talking about the need to start with ‘why’ and ‘how’ leaders need to play the ‘infinite game’. He gives the example of how Microsoft was (in the days of the MP3 and iPod) obsessed with making a better product than Apple. Apple instead focused on producing quality products. Companies spend a lot of time besting the competition and end up losing out in the long run. Apple knew that even if Microsoft came out with a better product once in a while, this did not put Apple out of the race.
Yet, we teach kids competition, not collaboration. Not only do we pit people against rival organisations, but for some insane reason we also believe that competition inside a company is the optimal way to do things. People competing with one another rarely develop trust and fail to create synergies. In a situation where a company requires everyone to come together as a team and achieve goals and meet challenges, is it not counterproductive to promote internal competition?
What is the antidote? To go back to Goodwin’s LinkedIn post: “Can we look at our current status reports, inboxes, Asana projects and ask ourselves honestly: Are we doing the small number of things that make a huge difference brilliantly?”
So how do we go about doing this? We need to revaluate goals and objectives frequently so that efforts are not wasted (because we get stuck in productivity and busyness and end up losing focus). The enemy of creativity and innovation is routine and we love routine because it prevents uncertainty. To move forward purposefully, companies need to be flexible in what they are trying to achieve and how they get there. Measuring how far you have travelled towards a goal and at what speed can be misleading. Think of a person using Google Maps – there are many different ways to get from point A to B and, in between, you can also change direction. Sometimes going backwards is required to progress. Companies could actually concentrate on the small number of things that have real impact if they were to embrace uncertainty armed with structure and flexibility.
Take my conversations with Bykea and Careem captains. They arrive at my location as per their map but sometimes the map shows the wrong location or they are not familiar with the area. I always ask them where they are and when they reply “at your location,” I ask them to name a prominent building or landmark. This is to help establish where they are and help me find out whether they have actually reached or not. Understanding that your interpretation of the goal may be different from that of the boss or other team members is key to success. If this is achieved, companies can rightly claim, like my Careem or Bykea captains, that “we have arrived.”
Tyrone Tellis is Marketing Manager, Bogo. email@example.com