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Avoid being a Servant of the Cult

In my work as a leadership trainer and adviser, I observe two ways in which leaders deliver value. One way, they are prompted to do so by the “operating system” of the organisation: If there are annual performance reviews, they get a message from HR with a task, a form, and a deadline. If they have conversations with their direct reports in order to fill in the form and get a signature by the end of the month, they “do the job”. The better the form, the better the result. 

The second way is by individual competence. They have learnt “SMART” or a similar acronym to formulate objectives. They know the difference between feedback and appraisal. They understand what difference it makes if you tell your judgment first, or if you let the direct report give their point of view first. They know how to defuse tension in the conversation. 

What is the difference between the two? With approaches that deliver value through the “operating system”, the categorisation of contexts to which the approach should be applied is at the very core of the tool’s design. By comparison, individual competence always includes the capacity to adapt the approach to the context at hand. Individual competence is also applicable outside the set task of annual appraisals, even outside of what’s predictable to the institutional perspective: in our example, at the end of anything that you have observed a person do.

What are the comparative advantages and disadvantages of these two approaches? 

Dave Snowden describes this dichotomy with the analogy of recipes and chefs in cooking. If a recipe is well written, it works – provided you have all the correct ingredients and equipment. You put flour in the sauce because it says so. But if you have no flour, to save the dish you have to know about the binding of a sauce, and how you can achieve it in different ways. Instead of flour you can take butter, or boil potatos with the sauce because of the stark, or take egg yolk – but then you must not heat the sauce over 70°C otherwise the egg curdles. In other words, you need to know how to cook. 

I remember when as a student I had my first real life tests of cooking. With the right cook-book, I was able to deligt my guests with very little experience indeed. And this is what we can take out of the analogy: capacity-building through operating systems can produce a fair result no matter how experienced the users are, but if you need to adopt your approach to individual contexts, and further develop them, you need to build individual competence. 

However, when you look not at individuals, but at groups, it gets a little bit more complicated. 

IMG, a financial sector’s pioneer in adopting Agile, states in a promotional video that exemplary companies such as Google, Netflix and Spotify “believe firmly in the methodology called Agile”. Observe the choice of wording. No-one would say they believe firmly in the screwdriver, or in meeting minutes, or in attributing deadlines to tasks. But the more elaborate and branded a methodology becomes, the more natural does the verb “believe” sound next to it. Try a web search: Believe in Production Cells? No results yet. But you get hundreds of results for Believe in Lean. Believe in Six Sigma. Believe in Total Quality Management.

Why is this choice revealing? The difference between faith and insight is that faith needs no proof. Don’t get me wrong: it is not a question of whether there is a proof at all. It is just that proof is not needed, whereas a pragmatic approach would act upon proof, search to get proof as quickly as possible, and constantly check whether any alternative, or variant, delivers a better proof – in the context at hand. 

For a group of believers, the recipe book becomes a book of worship. The name becomes a brand: Six Sigma, Lean, Scrum, Holacracy. The followers form a cult: They meet and connect at communities of practice and conferences, they look each other in the eyes and confirm that their choice of cult is a really good one, and that knowlege from within the community is more trustworthy than anything from the outside. 

Amongst the members, there is a particular subset: the priests. Those whose professional existence depends on the perpetration of the cult, and who therefore become its most fervent defenants. In most cases, there is a hierarchy of ascension: You can get certified to prove that you are of a higher rank, both as cult member and as priest. And again, behind certification you get an economic model, with an in-built desire to perpetuate, standardise, and monopolise. “Operating systems” are monotheistic by definition. 

The advantage of the cult is that it is easier for an organisation to start a change, open the door for something new, and get traction fast, by jumping on the bandwagon of an established movement, instead of building something from their own context. It is amazing, especially in very large organisations, how many people are at their position almost uniquely on the basis of their capability to apply a certain recipe book. They have their belt in Six Sigma, or a long abbreviation behind their name with some variation of P.M. for project management. Outside their recipe book, they may be as useful as a disoriented chicken. But I take it they are worth their money, as long as the operating system provides a well-defined and stable place for their contribution.  

The downside is that since the recipe book of the cult does not always fit the context, the context is made to fit the cult. And this creates friction with the environment. The organisation may mature, and the number of people grows who realise that it is time to discard the recipe book, and learn to become a chef. But other than the individual path of development, in a cult you have to step up against all those factors named above which reinforce the existing practice, and want things to stay the same. As the friction with reality becomes more evident, the number of dissatisfied people grows. Some people may survive for a surprisingly long time under the thick skin of cynicism. Others may look for alternatives in the wrong direction. Instead of becoming chefs, they look for a new recipe book. For a quality manager with a belt in Six Sigma, the introduction of Good Management Practice is a lesser threat. Yes, they do not know how well they will be able to exercise their function in the new operating system. But they know the way to change that: get certified. And they know that if they are amongst the first to get certified, their value is in high demand. By comparison, the career of a chef is a path of never ending threats. You have never learned enough. You will be wrong many times. There is no certainty. 

Max Beerbohm has once observed: “You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men.” Let us value the people who do not stand with the herd. And let us listen to the sheepdog’s barking from all side, and form our own opinion. 

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