Strategy Hacks #6......ostriches?

Today we begin the second set of common excuses for not having an active strategic plan. This set of five are no less common and no less dangerous than those discussed earlier. The best part of the malignant condition we examine today is that it is easy to spot and diagnose. The worst part is that it is hard to treat.

Excuse #6: Fear of the unknown: Organizational ostriches are in denial about anything that might be negative. They are recognizable by the classic ‘head in sand' position. In organizations this is often ‘head in the minutia', or ‘head in the past'. Ostriches are detectable by the cry, "don't bother me with the facts". These leaders lack more than personal courage to face reality. To lend credibility to their views they actively create and nurture fear responses across the organization about anything or anyone different from the current norm.

Start with being aware of the potential for ostriches, or even worse, an internally reinforcing flock. Most consulting engagements regardless of the specific pain points for which you were contracted will allow or require a series of private interviews with the leadership. Even if you have no initial outside warnings, stay attuned to expressions or indications of fear in any leadership position. That means not only the chief staff officer and the board chair. Look for anxiety and panic responses across the entire senior staff and the whole board. Anyone in leadership has the potential for poisoning the whole organization with their sense of avoiding dread at any cost.

Check for how leaders have framed organizational and personal challenges. Is this mostly flight or fight? Explore these in some depth to understand the reasoning and the methods used to date to maintain that response.

Ostriches vigorously maintain the organizational status quo and deny the reality of changing external environments. This position is often accompanied with a false sense of organizational and personal performance.

Sometimes their fear comes from lack of confidence in the ability of their own organization, their colleagues or themselves to cope with the future. These ostriches portray a sense of doom or resignation to poor performance. They will tell you, "We're doing our best with what we can".

Sometimes the fear response is invoked to distract attention from the lack of a comprehensive strategic plan to cope with a rapidly evolving situation. This sort of ostrich is ever hopeful that "things will settle down, and then we'll see where we are".

Ignorance, denial and fear-mongering are not leadership. If left alone these ostriches and their underlying incompetence are unmasked by the simple unfolding of time. The problem is that the organization is at risk of collapsing with them.

Treatment can begin with helping ostriches confront the dangerous or negative information that they are avoiding so assiduously. Often this is organizational performance information. Most powerful are comparative analytics across the competitive environment, particularly if these can be reliably projected forward in time. Losing market share and stakeholder support now is bad enough; being forced out of business in five years is worse.

If personal fears are part of the problem, work with the individuals to recognize and address these concerns. Sometimes this is as simple as creating a better time management system. Sometimes there are addiction, health and other personal concerns that have been ignored and are now affecting the workplace. Support the individual into professional care as quickly as possible.

By the way, I hope that you have renegotiated your contract with the organization by now to include this level of active diagnosis and support. If not, do what you can as part of your original contract and leave indications of the larger Improvement potential in your public report and privately with each ostrich.

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