Going nowhere fast

I use the phrase “dysfunctional civility” in my consulting work to describe a board culture that shuts out hard questions and differences of opinion. This week I came across a companion descriptor that I plan to add to my workshop repertoire — “dysfunctional momentum.”

Michelle Barton and Kathleen Sutcliffe coined the phrase in an article that appeared in the April 2010 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review. (You have to pay a fee to read the whole article, but it is worth it.) They state that “dysfunctional momentum occurs when people continue to work toward an original goal without pausing to recalibrate or reexamine their processes, even in the face of cues that suggest they should change course.” 

I see it all the time. Leadership isn’t completely happy with the organization’s direction, but heh, at least it is going somewhere.  So the board and CEO push on, going nowhere fast. Throw in an unwillingness on the part of individual board members to rock the boat by voicing concerns (dysfunctional civility) and disaster is seldom far behind.

So what’s to be done? Barton and Sutcliffe advise the following:

1) Cultivate situated humility. You can be confident in your skills but humble about the situation. Even the most experienced experts cannot know how a dynamic situation will unfold.

2) Encourage skepticism to balance overreliance on experts.  It is important that everyone’s voice be heard and that participants, in presenting their own points of view, avoid trying to argue so strenuously that they fail to listen respectfully and attentively to what others have to say.

3) Actively seek out bad news, and use small problems as opportunities for people to learn more about their system.

4) Think and question out loud. Giving voice to what you are observing and thinking helps reveal your assumptions, allowing you and others to revise them if necessary.

5) Make yourself physically and socially available. Don’t succumb to the temptation to simplify your decision making by avoiding others.

6) Communicate frequently and, when possible, in person. Face to face is the richest medium for communication because it allows messages to be tailored to the specific receiver and context.

7) Seek out a variety of perspectives. Because crises often arise when small problems in areas tangential to your own suddenly escalate, it is useful to connect with people who see different parts of the organization than you do and who worry about different outcomes.

Although not addressed specifically to governing boards, this article is well worth a board’s consideration.  After all, there’s not much satisfaction in leading an organization that’s going nowhere fast.

What's your take on this topic?

%d bloggers like this: