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The Wrong Side of Urgency

One of the pieces that Matt Edgar linked to from his productive informality article was this fascinating analysis of Nokia’s decline. Rather than the complacency and ignorance to which Nokia’s innovation and competitive failures are usually attributed, the author’s research (based on an internal perspective from interviews with both senior and mid-level executives and engineers as well as an external one from experts) puts the blame on an organisational culture that at the time was dominated by a climate of fear.

The research indicates that, during the time in question, temperamental leaders created an environment that made it very hard to pass bad news back up the line. The fear that senior management had of the external environment and of not reaching their quarterly targets in a highly performance-driven culture seemingly impacted the treatment of their subordinates, making those middle managers fearful of disappointing the top executives. This ‘froze co-ordination’ between senior and middle management to the point where the latter over-promised, remained silent or even directly lied to to the former in order to avoid being told that they were not ambitious enough to meet the stretched goals set for them.

The result was a company-wide inertia. Everyone realised that Nokia needed a better operating system for its phones in order to respond to the threat posed by Apple. But middle management, fearful of appearing defeatist and of the reaction of their bosses, avoided publicly admitting the inferiority of Symbian (their own operating system), and the culture led to a ‘decoupling of perceptions’ between the two groups of top and middle managers about how quickly Nokia could match the iPhone.

This shared fear was exacerbated by a culture of status inside Nokia that equated resources with power. This made everyone want to retain status in order to prevent resources being allocated elsewhere, or to avoid being marginalised by being perceived to be not ambitious enough or willing enough to take on challenging projects or targets. Over-promising became a route to securing more resources which in turn was perceived as an increase in status. This was not helped by a lack of senior technical competency (at Apple, many of the top brass are engineers) which in turn meant poor assessment of feasibility in relation to goal setting. A disproportionate amount of focus and resources were therefore dedicated towards developing new devices to fulfil short-term market demands at the expense of what was really required – the development of a new operating system.

The conclusion from the authors is that leaders, and particularly those required to lead transformation (and which leader doesn’t fall into that category right now), need to be able to identify ‘varied collective emotions’ and develop a collective ‘emotional capability’ in their companies. In other words to be really sensitive to the emotional fallout and resultant impact of the culture within their organisation:

“While modest fear might be healthy for motivation, using it indiscriminately can be like overusing a drug, which risks generating harmful side effects…Fear can only be a useful motivator if management can provide workers with the means to address these fears.”

All of which made me think about the wrong side of urgency. One of the key initial steps in any transformation programme is to create the impetus and need for change. The first stage in John Kotter’s famous 8 step process for leading change is to ‘create urgency’ and establish the reason for change. Without that, it’s a non-starter. But there’s a smart point made in this post about the dangers of conflating hurrying with speed. A positively focused kind of urgency can create real change but a negatively focused one might over-emphasise inputs and action at the expense of outputs. Valuing action over results can lead to shortcuts, micromanagement, declines in proactivity, a reduction in signal vs noise, and a danger that we might value short-term gain over long-term vision. Conversely:

“A sense of purpose is about going faster and smarter toward a mission we all see clearly. It’s about using good judgment because we all understand the short and long term implications of our actions on what we’re creating together.”

Put another way, we all want fast but fast without focus is foolish.

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