Why Great Organizations Get Stuck

November 19, 2009

Thousands of management teams are in retreats, holed up in hotels with bad carpets trying to imagineer a future that doesn’t have today’s headaches. Yet those headaches hold the key to understanding why organizations aren’t performing. Industrial Psychologist Dr. Tom Tavares’ new book The Mind Field defines three psychological conditions that compromise organizations.

1. Focus. Like a camera we have a lens that can open to hold the richness of what is happening in our organization or contract to the minutiae of our ‘to do’ list. Jobs contract focus because to excel we have to give our  full attention to our work. Tavares argues this diminishes our understanding of the organization, isolates staff and causes communication breakdowns. The CEO can feel like no one gets the mission. VPs can lose touch with how their area affects others and Managers can unwittingly reduce the flow of innovative ideas or genuine market information that comes from the front line. This makes agreeing on what’s actually happening in your organization fraught. Symptoms get mistaken for ‘the problem’ so initiatives often fail, morale gets wobbly and frustration rises. Without a shared understanding of where you are you cannot strategize a workable action plan to get where you want to be.

2. Tavares says the second reason organizations get stuck is intensity. Work demands have exploded due to escalating technological change, google-itis (customers want it now) and knowledge workers who expect a positive effort to reward ratio commonly called happiness. People find themselves running to stand still and frustrated that they can’t a) use their best skills daily, b) are working longer and harder with less reward, c) are annoyed that while an organization says it has an open door policy it’s not open for everyone always and d) the same old same old problems continue.

Your solutions are in your organization. The answer is to have a systematic, disciplined way to gather input but it’s not happening because management is compromised by focus and intensity. This means that people start to inflate their importance or their department’s value to compensate for being unheard and devalued.

3. Skew: Tavares argues that as focus and intensity egg each other on skew arrives to crack things up in one of two ways.  One is to exaggerate the positive and bury issues, think Enron greed and Catholic Church scandals. An organization seeing things sunny side up will minimize risk and set unrealistic goals. They  also skew, or spin, a tale of success that makes employees feel more entitled because things are oh so peachy. When the truth comes up people end up doubly disillusioned and disengaged.

Or maybe things aren’t going well, think manufacturing, traditional media or finance. Senior management goes behind closed doors to manage the crisis. With no good news to share communication plummets and employees feel isolated then betrayed. Scramble in daily problems that never get resolved, an uncertain future and employee engagement and productivity drops faster than Nortel’s share price. Employees quit or worse they quit and stay.

For work to work, Tavares says start by acknowledging the psychological conditions at play in The Mind Field. His invaluable book offers five stages to get unstuck.


People charged with shifting an organization can get blocked because people are invested with having things seen their way. The change champion’s failure will be seen as stemming from some lack in their character not a flaw in the organization’s structure, systems or strategies. It is easier to play the blame game on a person then face the problem. The change agent will feel stuck then crazy. They’ll get fired or quit and wonder what on earth happened. Poor buttercup, it’s not about you. Sometimes, it really is a crazy, busy, nuts world.


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Good is no longer good enough. The goal is perfection and the path that takes us there leads to excellence.
Louise B. Karch