The Ghosts in the Machine

When we replace a part in a machine, we discard the old one. It no longer belongs in the system. The machine doesn’t miss it.

We have allowed ourselves to carry this analogy across into our organisations. We restructure, “rightsize”, merge, sell……whatever.

We allow ourselves to assume that what’s behind us is over, and that the logic of the new structure will propel us forward.

When things were slower, less VUCA, we were largely able to get away with that (even though the signals were there. 70% of change initiatives fail, as do a similar (or greater) proportion of acquisitions)

Now it’s an issue we cannot ignore. Every person who leaves an organisation, for whatever reason, leaves a “ghost”.

People leave their imprint on organisations long after they have left for whatever reason – including death.

We replace them, but the way they worked and the relationships they had leave a deep imprint. It is clear that new people who move into roles, at whatever level, who do not pay attention to how their predecessors operated are in for an uphill struggle.

People who “fail” and get replaced fail for a whole range of reasons from capability to politics. Functional incompetence is rare, meaning that it is far more likely they fell victim to the vicissitudes of the system and the “blame game” – which will still be there awaiting the new, naive and probably unwitting arrival.

It is said that Nikita Khruschev left two letters for his successor Leonid Brezhnev, each to be opened when a significant problem occurred. The first said “blame everything on me”. The second said “write two letters”.

The implications are massive. Treating organisations as machines, and people as replaceable no longer works. The organisations don’t have the ability to survive this sort of approach for any length of time.

Getting rid of people who are inconvenient not incompetent results in them finding work somewhere else, and letting every one know in an age of ubiquitous connection. Meanwhile, the organisation they leave behind doesn’t really change much. People notice. The “ghost” of those who leave remain, whispering “told you so” to those remain, and the glue that keeps the organisation together weakens.

Organisations need talent far more than talent needs a specific organisation. Talent has more options than organisations.

Good leadership recognises this.

Recognising those who have left is the foundation upon which change is built.


How does that really work?

One of my vivid memories from school is calculus. Sitting in rows trying to keep up. Getting marks for being able to replicate what was going up on the Board.

The trouble was, I could do it, but didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t pull it apart and play with it. Be intimate with it. I could pass the exam, but was a mechanic with it, not an engineer, or an artist. But it did the job, I got the grades and moved on. I regret that – maths is a beautiful subject that I’m only getting to grips with now – a long time on. Learning to play with it.

With the change that we’re in, the skills we have learned will become obsolete at an accelerating rate. A little like software that’s just been updated.

The artist who codes it though, the person who understands how how it works, who can play with it, who can create from first principles, will thrive.

Learning keeps you current. Understanding gives you freedom.

On Stage

going on stage

A large part of what I do with clients involves me standing back and noticing what’s going on for them, internally and externally in areas that are hard to monitor with data, but which can be sensed.

A large part of my “off site” load is reading and monitoring trends (I am a recent convert to Blinkist and Feedly which are great tools for filtering what to pay attention to)

What I am noticing is that the vast majority of articles, and good percentage of books that are written seem to be written for actors on a corporate stage. Full of different aspects of how to play your part better, find better “agents”, get noticed.

Person as role holder on a business stage in some form of soap opera.

I’ve often wondered what happens to actors in soap operas who have been playing a role for many years. Who goes home at night – the person, or the part? When do they notice?

I think that the most important task we have while we’re here is to be open to our calling and ready to listen to it when it appears. To make the fullest contribution we can with our unique individual talents. Not easy when the role is full on, but vital none the less.

William Stafford wrote it beautifully:

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among  things that change.  But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.

We are in times of unprecedented change that will change just about every aspect of how we work, and will rewrite many of the soap operas we are part of today. No matter how well we have played the part, it won’t stop our character being written out of the script.

What will matter, more than ever is who we are and the thread we are following.