How to Recognize that You May Be Working For a Zombie Organization
Zombies are both comic and tragic in being trapped in forms of destructive behaviour which are self-reinforcing. They are blind to their behavioural trap and can only duplicate their incompetence until they run out of victims to consume, destroy their environment completely or get wiped out by an intelligent predator. Does this sound like any organization you know?
With the proliferation of lean thinking in organizations, it is timely to start considering what the next differentiator in business is likely to be. Just as lean thinking was the product of having to compete with limited resources by focusing on identifying and reducing new forms of waste, the idea of Zombie Organizations has a similar focus on what Mind Fit Ltd calls “Behavioural Waste” or forms of behaviour that distract people from connecting positively with the productive purpose of their business (assuming that the purpose of the organization remains beneficial).
How Zombie is Your Organization?
Some of the clues to the nature of Zombie Organizations include the following:
- Focus on Efficiency not Effectiveness: what we do and how we do it are not up for discussion. The core focus is upon managing and cutting costs and not upon identifying new forms of effectiveness through innovation, there is very little room to manoeuvre and a limited sense of “Innovation Freedoms” where innovation is needed.
- Vampire Problems: these are problems which have officially been resolved, but which keep coming back. They tend to be about performance issues and are often systemic. You redesign the form that work takes and it appears to work for a while and then performance slips back and the old problem reappears.
- Needy Subordinates: the more you supervise people in order to build their capability, the more you have to supervise: as they get used to checking out their work with you. At first, this seems flattering, then it becomes wasteful of your time and prevents you collaborating more widely or allowing you to free yourself up to start innovating.
All these issues or forms of Behavioural Waste are the product of the interaction of Learnt Helplessness (on the part of subordinates or team members) and Learnt Defensiveness (on the part of supervisors or those with expertise).
What happens is that supervisors or expert practitioners start out with good intentions in introducing quality work practices to their colleagues, but their paternalistic approach inadvertently goes beyond the tipping-point of capability development and falls into constructive incompetence through establishing dependency relationships which then demand more paternalism, and ultimately institutionalises Behavioural Waste through a self-reinforcing cycle that Mind Fit calls the “Zombie Cycle”.
This Zombie Cycle of close supervision and dependency then proliferates through an organization like a virus and takes over, general incompetence levels explode and the need for governance and compliance structures become an end in themselves.
What Can You Do?
- Personally: consider whether your leadership behaviour is building dependency among key colleagues and team-members. Start coaching dependent colleagues to adopt Can-Do behaviours and gradually distance yourself.
- Organisationally: Identify Vampire Problems and apply the concept of “Zombie Cycles” to determine which problems are due to the manufacture of dependency and Learnt Helplessness. Work with those involved, to reduce leaders’ paternalism and grow employees’ ability to manage their own work processes and outputs without direct supervision.
- Use resources, time, and energy freed up, to innovate.