Silver bullet


I’m not a great fan of the type of management consulting that is typified by organisations like McKinsey (too often it merely represents the wrong sort of management delegation from my lowly viewpoint), but there are many things of value that come from the work of such firms. A case in point is the 7-S model – co-developed by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman at McKinsey in the 1980s.

7-S is a way of looking at an organisation to try to identify where there might be problems within. The seven “s”s refer to three “hard” factors and four “soft” factors:

Structure – how the organisation is organised, and who reports to whom
Strategy – the plan for how the organisation will move forward
Systems – the activities, procedures and processes by which people work within an organisation (including those that may be encapsulated within IT systems)

Shared Values – the core values of the organisation as evidenced within corporate culture and behaviours
Skills – the actual skills and competencies possessed by employees working at the company
Style – the style of leadership adopted 
Staff – the employees and their general capabilities

My general experience of working life is that most organisations focus on the top three (often one having greater focus than any other at any particular point in time) many have gone through big internal marketing activities to define values (which are often anodyne sets of nouns not actionable verbs); and the final three are too soft for practical, hard-nosed business leaders to do anything about.

That’s where I realise how I have faced biggest challenges in my working life – when I can see ways in which things can be addressed through change in the soft side of the model, silver bullets (often in the form of software systems) are trumpeted by their advocates, and given that installing a bit of software sounds a lot easier than changing people, their skills, styles of working or, heaven forbid, their culture, the silver bullet always looks like the easy option. The world of social media is doing this today in spades to the world of marketing and beyond.

A case in point: in my time back at the BBC one of my greatest successes was in preventing an old system being replaced by something new. That’s heresy to most IT folk – I should have been pushing hard to remove the legacy of the sales order processing system built on the obscure and archaic PRO IV platform. But in my analysis work it became clear that the perceived problems that the management group saw in this old fashioned, green-screen system were actually manifestations of different teams not talking to each other, and a lack of knowledge and understanding of what the other groups did and the value they provided. A big exercise in allowing each group to understand more about the people and capabilities of these different teams, and a little bit of management reporting, and the bulk of the issues were resolved.

Another: in my last role, a technical shift of mobile phones to unify on using BlackBerry in 2009 (saving the company 50% of its phone budget as a result) depended on some clever technical delivery, but mostly on equipping the staff with the skills and knowledge of how to use their new devices, and also getting key leaders to role model the right behaviours by giving up their company iPhones (getting the Global Creative Director of a significant creative agency to swap his iPhone for a BlackBerry Bold was one of the hardest things I’ve ever achieved).

But it’s all too easy for managers, either with a low regard for the softer things in life, or who just want to have an easy life, to think that focusing on the hard stuff alone will fix their organisation’s ills. A new system here, a restructure there, another new strategy. It’s even easier to fall into that trap when a software vendor or service provider (or these days, Social network service) comes along and claims that their product is the one that will solve all of your problems. We really want that to be the case (who wouldn’t?), there’s probably enough data for confirmation bias to sell us short, and the deal is done.

A single lever to control a complex beast like a corporation is a easy fallacy to fall for. Change, however, is complex, challenging, and always multi-faceted. 

One thought on “Dodging silver bullets

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