Wrenches in the Works

It is very difficult to foster change and innovation in complex social systems.  You need to understand key stakeholders; their perceptions, concerns, and values; and how to gain their support for central elements of the changes being entertained.  It can take much time and work to build a coalition capable of moving forward.

Examples of success include the United Nations (1945), World Health Organization (1948), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949), World Trade Organization (1995), and the Paris Climate Agreement (2016).  These organizations have served us well, if not perfectly.  The central idea of all of these organizations is that collaboration can yield benefits for everyone.

Many aspects of these organizations remain fragile and depend on strong, committed leadership for sustained success.  They can occasionally withstand a steward of the status quo as a leader who wants to avoid any changes, but regular doses of visionary leadership are needed.  What is much more difficult is disruptive leaders or key stakeholders who throw “monkey wrenches into the works.”

Such disruptions can undermine plans, programs, and outcomes. More fundamentally, they can undermine organizational culture and effectiveness.  Dispirited staff members and organizational constituencies can result.  Over time, the sponsors of the organization can come to question their investments and, quite possibly, curtail them.

Disruption can sometimes be a positive force.  For the example, the current pandemic has disrupted higher education and forced consideration of operational efficiency and effectiveness.  It helps a bit, in this case, that the disruption is a natural rather than a political force.  Significant improvements will eventually result.

The worst situation is capricious disruption, typically not by the leader but by a key stakeholder.  We have experienced much capricious disruption from the White House in the past few years, seeking to undermine and perhaps destroy long-term alliances and institutions. Hopefully, the next leader will not be a capricious disrupter.

Such behavior is not unique to our current situation. Our extensive studies of the automobile industry have unearthed many examples of “car guys” (always men) capriciously derailing vehicle development programs and imposing their gut feel on otherwise reasonable processes.

In my many associations with universities, I have experienced senior leaders capriciously clinging to doomed strategies despite overwhelming evidence of likely failure.  They felt, it seemed, that they could not be faulted for doing nothing.

These two examples of capricious decision making share a key ingredient. The leaders absolutely knew they were correct. No argument could dissuade them. After all, it was their call.  They usually invoke this claim when they cannot justify what they want to do.  This is a strong sign of bad leadership.

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