A Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone

Today’s title is a fairly common term used when referring to an organization that appears to have no other purpose other than sustaining the survival of the organization itself.  Ice Cream ConeIt’s like an Organizational “Black Hole” (OBH) which sucks up activity and productivity, only to have nothing of value produced in return.  It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed in both government and the private sector so neither world has a corner on the market.  Organizations that one might classify as a “bureaucracy” may exhibit the characteristics of an OBH, but not necessarily.  There are plenty of bureaucracies in government producing useful things, perhaps not at the speed or efficiency we would like, but that issue is a different matter from the OBH.  I  suggest as a leader that you should periodically take a look at your organization to ensure you remain well outside the influence of the OBH.  OBH’s have the following items in common:

  1. They tend to form when an entity reorganizes frequently
  2. There is excessive focus  on development of strategy
  3. There is too little focus on execution of strategy
  4. Their mission and/or desired results are not clear
  5. They have highly organized and complicated structures
  6. They have difficulty in articulating what they do in plain terms (excessive “buzz word” use)
  7. They are always in meetings

Black HoleI think that will do for now.  I’m not going to comment on all of these factors in this posting, but I will chat for a moment on what I consider to be the most significant problem, the balance between strategy and execution.  My experience has been that most successful and growing organizations have a healthy balance between the two.  If there is too much focus on strategy, companies are constantly conducting strategic off-sites because they never feel like the previous strategy is accomplishing the desired results.  This is not surprising since if there is little focus on execution, metrics are rarely established and responsibility rarely assigned for elements of the strategy.  Therefore, no one really knows if the strategy is being effective or not.  If a company focuses too much on execution, it never achieves its growth targets because of Crenshaw’s Anti-Multiplicative Rule, “ You can’t double revenue by doing twice as much of the same thing.”  I’ve noticed that many OBH’s have very sophisticated organizational structures and have multiple interconnected relationships.  The organization has spent so much time organizing and admiring itself, it has forgotten to produce product. The leadership feels very comfortable with this complex organizational structure because it gives the outside observer the illusion of operational excellence and it looks great in Power Point.   I firmly believe it’s possible to organize yourself right out of business.

The dilemma leaders face is that as companies and organizations grow, they require more structure.  But structure tends to inhibit agility and entrepreneurship, thus limiting growth.  Good leaders know how to put just enough structure in place to allow for growth without adversely impacting agility and entrepreneurship.

So beware the Organizational Black Hole syndrome.  Be highly suspicious of briefings pregnant with elegant organization charts, explained with a healthy dose of “buzz words” like stovepipes, barriers, synergistic effects,  vis-a vis, etc.  Make sure the focus is not so much on structure but more on execution and results.  I believe that an organization that is focused on execution excellence will do well with just about any strategy but an organization focused on strategy will never quite hit the mark.  There’s a quote I like from Stephen Covey….”The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  Make your main thing execution and you can’t go wrong.