Urgency & Agency

I have encountered a range of situations – in industry, government, and academia – where the financial well being of the organization is severely threatened and leadership refuses to recognize the situation and accept agency for dealing with it. 

I recall one situation in academia where I asked the Provost how he would deal with decreased foreign enrollments due to Trumps’ constraints on immigration and the emerging coronavirus pandemic.  He provided his financial projections and indicated “Every institution will suffer similar consequences.”

I responded, “That does not seem like plan B.” It turned out the response was to cut costs everywhere possible, particularly for contingent faculty who are employed semester by semester.  All discretionary and rainy day funds were hoovered up.  Reengineering of educational process, which had been long avoided, remained avoided.

Recognizing and accepting the idea that people no longer wanted photographic film, or that people wanted digital devices not just phones, was very slowly accepted.  Billions of dollars of economic value were lost.  Creative destruction was rampant and markets fundamentally changed.

Why?  First, there was a lack of a sense or urgency.  The economic threat may have been recognized, but when might it happen?  This year?  Next year?  Certainly not tomorrow.  But iPhones quickly replaced Nokia’s low-cost phones, and the era of digital devices was off and running.

Beyond urgency, there is agency.  Given a recognized threat, whose responsibility is it to respond?  My experience is that most people want to just keep on doing what they have been doing, even when they begin to accept that this is completely inadequate,  For example, the market is not buying our product, but it is what we know how to do.

This is not the responsibility of “production workers,” although they may bear the brunt of the consequences of this situation.  The people who manufacture, deliver, and service an organization’s offerings to its markets or constituencies — ranging from shop floor workers to teachers to clinicians – likely have a wealth of ideas for improving operations, but they seldom have the authority to redesign their work processes.

This responsibility belongs to organizational leaders at several levels, ranging from supervisors to executives to investors.  There is a very strong tendency for these people to be stewards of the status quo.  They often find it difficult to recognize and articulate the fact that the status quo is no longer viable.  This requires that they lead rather than just manage.  

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