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.

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