May 19, 2017
For tens of thousands of years, oil seepage from the earth created craters of pitch in urban Los Angeles known as the La Brea Tar Pits. The tar formed a deposit thick enough that when unsuspecting animals wandered in, they became trapped and eventually died.
Many of the remains in the tar pits are those of giant sloths. Sloths move only when necessary and then very slowly. Sometimes they don’t even bother to breed, so some species have become extinct. The metaphors for 21st-century organizations invite comparison.
Corporate tar pits develop when leaders persist in sloth-like approaches, ignoring the links among a strong change orientation, action, and results. Leaders need a new approach to thinking about the environment of the organization—a new ideology that inexorably links decision making, the organizational environment, and success—not just improvement.
When companies embrace a change orientation, they consider the tough calls that lead to innovation part of the way they do business instead of a process or project they engage in for a given period. People innovate when they see a benefit—when they perceive that the change will improve their condition, not when someone else wants it. These questions will help determine your change orientation:
Do we make decisions we can implement immediately? Or, do we vet decisions to every conceivable stakeholder, suggesting we seek their “buy-in” when we actually want their approval?
To what extent will employees accept leader-only or expert-only decisions? While sometimes desirable, consensus simply takes too long, and it ignores or negates a leader’s often more trustworthy intuition.
How adeptly do we evaluate risk? Smart risk-takers define the playing field for everyone else.
Too many organizations engage in ongoing problem solving, usually returning things to the status quo—rarely embracing real innovation and change. While not perfect, doing what we’ve always done in the same way that we’ve always done it requires so much less angst and energy than experimenting with new approaches or pressing for innovative ideas.
Organizational change, the double-edged sword, can build a technology giant like Apple, but it can also unleash a backlash or unrest and turbulence. Researcher James O’Toole addressed the emotional side of change when he wrote about “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom” in Leading Change: The Argument for Values-Based Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1995), pointing out that a status quo mindset does more than create a philosophy—it establishes a risk-averse, oppressive dogma that quashes new ideas, novel approaches, and innovation.
Intellectually, business leaders understand they must champion change to keep pace, let alone outrun the competition. Yet, people often feel trapped by their own ideology, acting as though an oppressive regime or organizational structure has been forced on them by an unknown agent. They see themselves as victims, but they aren’t. They themselves have created their tar pits by making the status quo so resistant to change. Imprisoned by their own behavior, they avoid conversations that would help them learn about the gaps between their intention to change and objective reality.
Where does the balance between honoring the company’s history and embracing the future occur? When does a stake in the ground act as commitment, and when does it tether the warrior to his grave? We need to understand the advantages of change and the pitfalls of getting it wrong. Only then can we address the difficult decisions leaders must make to serve as agents for change while preserving the best of what should never change.
Image: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com: George C. Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits. Los Angeles, CA