Fat cat splat!

Why our survival depends on it.

11 November 2009, by Tracey Swanepoel

The one thing you can say about life is that it goes on... and on....and on.

Volcanos, tsunamis and earthquakes don't even scratch at the surface of life's resilience. Even our substantial efforts haven't done enough to make a dent in "the life of the planet" (though not through lack of trying)!

And yet there's no CEO of life - no swarm of external consultants, no project management plan, no performance review, no bonus system (to make life "perform" better). Life evolves, adapts and improves. How? Evolutionary progress is all about the delicate balance between more of the same (replication via DNA) and variety (via mutation).

What is our management DNA?

If we had to apply this logic to corporate South Africa, extinction becomes a scary possibility. Consider our corporate DNA for one - what do we believe about good management and success? About 100 years ago (really!) management thinkers came up with a set of principles which defined modern management, and which clearly still drive our thinking today: standardisation; specialisation; hierarchy; planning; control and extrinsic monetary rewards (to shape human behaviour). As well as these may have served us up until now, they are all geared to solving one problem - how to maximise operational efficiency and reliability in big organisations. However, increasingly this is not the problem we face. Right now the environment requires us to design organisations that thrive on change, prosper in turbulence and survive despite their leaders. Striving for control and predictability might warm management's hearts, but if we are not careful we will predict ourselves right into extinction.

Where is the variety?

Secondly, how open are we to variety? Are we a small, tight inbred "community" (read old boys network) that has little tolerance for fresh ideas and maverick thinking? Do we believe that collusion among industry "competitors", corruption, non-delivery, chaos in government agencies and overly generous pay packets are the ticket to a great future?

Are we "fat cats", maybe not in our bank balances but in our attitudes - smug, supercilious and wallowing in our complacency (this is how we do it because we have always done it this way)? Without irregularity, disruption and creative thinking, there is nothing new. No innovation, no variety, no adaptability.

The learning from nature is simple and brutal - adapt or die. So how do we apply "fat cat splat" (my version of challenging and even toppling the status quo from its current pedestal) in our workplaces right now?

Celebrate mistakes

Mutations are actually nature's mistakes. Mistakes that have helped us evolve and survive. Error free, sanitised (fear driven) working environments will yield no adaptation, no mutation and no evolution. We need to be slower to brand ideas ridiculous, crazy or unworkable. We should be looking for radical thinking that provokes incredulity. Pigeonholing our people in terms of title, rank and functional area is hardly the way to get them to think out of the box. There is a famous Apple TV ad that is worth quoting in this regard, the copy reads: "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do." The "crazy ones" who are featured include Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, Frank Lloyd Wright and Pablo Picasso. Do you know where the crazy ones are in your organisation?

Get serious about play

The inventors of Post-It notes, Kevlar (the material from which bullet proof vests are made) and Velcro all did it. Google has a rule about it and in fact, one day a week dedicated to it. Children do it all the time - play. Mostly we define play as the opposite of work. Yet it should be integral to it. When we play we do something for the sheer joy of doing it. We have fun, we are at our most imaginative and we laugh. Incidentally sense of humour and intelligence are highly correlated, so we should laugh more - it's good for our image! The future is not something we can plan and control, it's not about what will come next, it's about what could come next. Improvisation is a critical leadership attribute because new ideas are not generated by deduction but by creative imagination. We can't analyse our way to sustainable growth.

Say no to "yes" men

The more diverse the group, the more creative and innovative the output. Although we tend to be drawn to like-minded and like bodied people, we need to seek out the disruptors. Hiring cadres of "stepford-like" employees who fit the mold runs the risk of perpetuating the status quo. Inspiration and insight often come from friction or disagreement. Copious "nodders" might make us feel comfortable but are highly unlikely to propel us into the future.

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