Fix Delivery Predictability in the Boardroom, not the Teamroom

I recently spoke to a senior IT executive in a large Canadian nonprofit with a rich history dating back to the late 1800s. It was clear that COVID provided a point of personal reflection and he recently left the private sector for a more meaningful position serving Canadians. Among many comparisons between private and nonprofit organizations, we landed on the topic of improving increasingly difficult delivery predictability…

It’s not surprising that large complex organizations are challenged to execute with predictability. I find it quite ironic (yet not surprising), that it is low-performing organizations that always seek to have high-performing teams.

I find it quite ironic… that low-performing organizations always seek to have high-performing teams.

It’s not that we don’t realize our problems are systematic in the larger mechanisms tackled only in the executive layer (aka “the boardroom”). We do. We understand there are significant issues with how our organizations are structured. We know our technical debt is slowing us down. We know we need new Agile approaches and mindsets at the executive level, not just the team level.

So why do we (the senior executives in the “boardroom” focus on how teams work together (aka the “team room”) to achieve deliverability predictability?

…the “boardroom” executives BELIEVE that fixing the “team room” is easier.

We often default to small tactical improvements over really addressing large systematic changes. I’m not talking about incremental kaizen changes to achieve a larger transformation. I’m equally not a proponent of re-orgs to solve what are often non-structural problems. What I predominantly see is every executive silo doing its own smaller transformations neglecting and often ignoring the biggest problem. Why do we do this? Because we, the “boardroom” executives BELIEVE that fixing the “team room” is easier.

I can very much empathize with senior leaders being very limited in implementing large organizational changes. Often times it feels like a political campaign influencing and aligning other senior leaders… very difficult and sometimes disheartening (in more hostile environments). I can empathize with approaches like re-orgs primarily targeting our own sphere of influence. I can also empathize with the financial pressures that often force us to cut talented staff and undermine our already fragile culture.

COVID exposed the desperate need for fixing the system, not just the symptom.

I want to caution you and encourage you… First a word of caution: You can no longer defer or neglect the systematic issues. You can no longer focus on fixing the symptom aka the “team room”. You need to fix it in the “boardroom”.

Here is the encouraging part. Don’t influence executives with your position and power. Appeal to their humanity. Instead of great strategy decks, show customer and staff stories. Lead with empathy that crosses all organizational silos. And before I lose some of you, I’m not talking about abandoning business outcomes. I’m talking about integrating them. There is something else that COVID exposed in large organizations…

We keep trying to solve very human problems by focusing on organizational productivity.

We try to fix the “great resignation” through employee recruitment and retention programs. We try to fix burnout with expert speakers and yoga classes. And yes, we try to fix delivery predictability by replacing traditional project management bureaucracy with a new Agile bureaucracy. Yet some of these are, in their very nature, human problems. They cannot be fixed using a program or process. We default to these because we as executives, I’m sorry to say, we are ill-equipped to address them.

There is a second more profound truth here… We cannot fix delivery and productivity without first addressing very human issues like burnout. This does not work in organizations in much the same way it does not work in your personal life. And the path here again, please notice, is through empathy and personal change.

Ultimately, organizations are positioned to thrive only if individuals in these organizations are positioned to thrive.

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