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Wrecking a Company With Lack of Debate

I attended a client's monthly management meeting the other week and it was interesting to say the least. The session was scheduled for an hour (so in my head I'm thinking that's a bit short) and it was to cover operational performance and a new product they were designing for a new market they were looking to enter.

I'd asked in advance why they were mixing their meetings, operational performance is, well an operational discussion and the new product was a strategic discussion, it's like turning on a documentary and halfway through getting a Top Gear road trip episode! Alas they carried on.

The Operational Bit 

The operational section, as I'll call it, was very structured, they went around the table and talked about everything that they and their teams had done in the last month within their own individual departments. When someone was done there were no questions, everyone nodded, and the next person started. This took just over 35 minutes after which they were ready to move on to talk about the new product. I stuck up my hand…

The CEO smiled and said I didn't have to raise my hand just shout out the questions, It's an 'open forum' so in my own reserved way I asked a simple question, "Are you guys winning or losing?" they all looked at me, I carried on. "what I mean is, how are you performing against your targets and budgets, do each of your teams have the resources you need to achieve any goals that have been set? Do you all think each other, and the respective departments are delivering what you need?" Silence…

It's just I had no idea how they were doing in terms of delivering, they were certainly doing stuff but there was no way to know if it was any good or not, nor I think did anyone else.

The CEO looked round the table and asked the team what they thought, one by one they all said that they thought they were doing fine and there wasn't much need to discuss anything else, so he smiled and me and we moved on.

The New Product Bit 

So after 40 minutes of a 60 minute meeting they moved onto the new product section where Dave (not his real name) shared out some glossy pictures of the product and some charts showing how many they would sell if they could deliver it before the end of August. It was a big number of sales I have to say and if the profit projection per unit was right then it would really bump their organisations bottom line. But…. The design wasn't finished, there was a new machine needed to build it, this was on the water and due in 4 weeks, and it had to go for compliance testing. Again, everyone just nodded and agreed that this would be great for the company and that their teams were super excited about it (without sounding excited).

Again, I raised my hand... "sorry I have some questions, Brenda the Planning Manager looked at her watch, we were sailing pretty close to the 60 minute window and after this meeting was lunch time so I got 'the look'.

Does anyone have any concerns about this project, are there any risks, what's the impact if it slides? It wont slide said Dave, Brenda shot him a glance but said nothing, Alfred who ran operations also said nothing so I prompted, Al, are there risks with the new machine, do you have people trained in it already? Who is working with the lab for the compliance testing?

The answer was that they would review the machine when it arrived, train people then and Derek was working with the lab, he's done it for years and he was sure he had it under control. Another eye roll from Brenda, but no questions.

At that the CEO clapped his hands, announced it was all great and stood up to leave…. Sounds like we are all in agreement then and he left. The room dutifully filled out behind him as I sat there pretty much open mouthed.

The Chats 

I caught up with Alfred a little later and asked him a few more questions and he eventually admitted that he didn't think there was a snowballs chance of them hitting August for the new product and that operations were running an average of 4 weeks behind on things and the scrap levels were up. Planning didn't care they just kept pumping out a plan and adding more on top.

When I eventually found Brenda she actually said she didn't care about hitting August, her part was to plan it so if it was ready by then she'd plan it but until it hit the planning horizon she didn't really care, but she did care about operations being a month behind and really wished they would pull finger and work some more overtime!

Dave was an interesting guy; he had some great ideas for other new products but knew the company could only 'handle one failure at a time' as he put it. We're going to be late, we are always late, the lab will come back with a bunch of stuff we need to fix and we will be late, everyone knows it but it's going to be all heroes and prayers come June and July.

Finally I sat with the CEO and asked him, you have to keep the pressure on he said, I know we'll never make it but if I say that out loud then everyone will feel unsupported and let down, the air will be left out and we'll slow down. If we can deliver this in November it'll be ok. I was to say the least a little stunned.

I explained the chats that I'd had, and he wasn't surprised So why did none of this come up in the meeting?

The 1st Rule of Meetings 

In this organisation the 1st rule of meetings was don't ask questions and certainly don't push back on the boss. Keep your head down and get out on time and go back to doing 'real work'. The result of that of course is that the company is totally dysfunctional and under performing. With zero trust between the leadership team it's little wonder the company is working in little silo's and everyone can see the cliff coming they just don't want to be the one to mention it so over they will go, again.

Debate, Argue, Challenge and Demand

If you want to have an outstanding organisation then you need a few things, you need a leadership team who are all open to challenging each other, they should be open to defend their ideas and argue the heck out of a topic for as long as it takes to ensure everyone is clear and have had their say. It's important that they DON'T agree with everything that is said or done, otherwise you end up with group think and really terrible ideas and results! They do,however, need to have the discussion if they are going to get on board with the final decision and sometimes it's going to be a heated one and that's OK in fact it's brilliant because that means there is passion about the topic and that the team are engaged. They need to have the meeting in the meeting, not in back corridor chats or over the water cooler.

They need to hold each other to account and demand that they perform and produce the results so that performance can be critiqued other wise how do you know if you are winning? How do your teams know? To break down silo's the leadership team must be in lock step, but they can only do that if they can have the meaningful, full on debate. The only person who can allow that to happen however is the person at the top. If they aren't on board or capable of doing it then you are in trouble and it's time to think about other options.

We are back in the room with this organisation next week, to argue the merits of the new product and get everyone on board, firstly we have to have a session with the CEO, we need to get him comfortable with disagreement quickly or nothing else matters. It sounds extreme but this team is essentially wrecking the company through the lack of debate in the leadership team.

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Sunday, 31 May 2020

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