Turning your business around: heart or head, participation or strong direction?

by Amanda Harding


Félix Vallotton, Les barbelés (Barbed-wire), 1916, woodcut, 25.2 x 33.5 cm Galerie Paul Vallotton,Lausanne.

Félix Vallotton, Les barbelés (Barbed-wire), 1916, woodcut, 25.2 x 33.5 cm Galerie Paul Vallotton,Lausanne.

The last time I was faced with a room of 35 men, all committed to the « cause » but disenchanted by the “process” was in a small over-heated (in more ways than one), dusty town in Somalia, just north of Mogadishu, around 10 years ago.   Ten years on and it felt equally over heated but with a slight change of circumstances: an airport hotel meeting room in a large German city with a group of “blokes” so utterly committed to their customer and enchanted by the high achieved from a commercial “win” that the effects of their transformation into good soldiers with too long spent in the trenches is only now starting to come to light. Inundated with demands where one priority supersedes the next, with a one-way communication system where incessant emails break down any opportunity for dialogue and where both strategy and action plans are made on the hoof, the best you can do is survive. One hundred years after the start of the First World War and we now know that too long spent in the trenches is a sure recipe for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), slowed reactions, poor decision making – in short a certain route to loss and failure.

As with any growing and changing organisation with laudable ambitions but poor execution plans the organisational culture is being put to the test. Perceptions across the organisation are diverse and so-called rationale explanations and justification abound. Most striking, in a world where profit growth and margins dominate, is the focus on detail – deadlines, targets, deliverables – all masking  confusion, chaos and contradiction. People talk at cross purposes when a common language should exist and managers talk about empowerment but continue to pile on short terms demands.

As in any organisation successful change will come through co-creation and innovation, through inclusive informed decision making and an ability to listen, learn and adapt over time. This is uncomfortable for many, especially those in positions of power. Valuing intuition and a diversity of  perspective, authentic emotion and potential conflict demand real leadership courage and risk taking. 

As a relative new comer to the private sector but an old timer in the world of international research, development and human rights organisations it is astonishing how the narratives, both as institutional histories and forward looking visions of transformation, are consistent. This is less mysterious than it appears. At the end of the day we're all looking to belong to a successful winning team where we are all valued contributors. The mystery and the excitement lies in the collective journey.