First-class coach

I've joined a new firm in a very visible key role. To my frustration, the company is hidebound by tradition, everything is decided in (long) meetings, and the bureaucracy is unbelievable.

by Miranda Kennett, an independent coach
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How can I make it clear that I find this approach unacceptable without antagonising other senior directors?

A: What size and how old is the organisation? Generally, the older-established and larger the enterprise, the more Byzantine the operating systems and conventions of decision-making.

Unfortunately, the advent of the quality standard ISO 9000 and of IT hasn't always increased efficiency. The standard assumes you have a process and asks you to document it and stick to it. Sometimes, in documenting it, people realise that their system isn't effective and modify it. But often, the unsatisfactory status quo is committed to paper and so enshrined for perpetuity.

The pattern is similar with IT. Paper-based systems are frequently transferred wholesale to electronic ones, so although entering the data may be quicker, the system isn't much improved. No-one took the time to ask the fundamental questions about the purpose of the process or to ascertain what a better process might deliver.

With your fresh pair of eyes, and experience of how things can be different and better, you see the need for change. But it's hard to change a system single-handed, especially as a newcomer. How successful you will be depends on how unhappy your boss and colleagues are with the current arrangements.

How many of your peers share your views? It's possible they've been in the system so long they don't notice its shortcomings, or find them comfortably familiar. Perhaps they've already tried to improve things but have collapsed back exhausted when their efforts were not appreciated.

One way to find out would be to see whether you can table a discussion on your meetings and their effectiveness, ideally as part of an awayday or some other ad hoc meeting. Start by getting your colleagues to rate your team gatherings on a scale of 0 to 10 for effectiveness and for enjoyability.

Or engineer informal conversations with others on the management team on this subject.

If your research reveals an awareness of the problem and a willingness to change, you'll be in a position to start advocating changes to the way decisions are made and processes are run. If you encounter apathy and cynicism about the possibility of change, you'll at least know where the obstacles to improvement lie.

A pre-condition for successful change is dissatisfaction with the status quo. If you don't find much, you may have to create some by providing data on the consequences of poor decision-making and substandard processes. Your frustration will not be enough - concrete examples are required, and the more these are related to negative financial impact on the business, the better.

A client of mine, a large financial services corporation, has embarked on a root-and-branch evaluation of all its processes to ensure that it delivers some sort of value to its customers. Where the management find practices and documentation that fail to meet this action standard, they are making changes. This is a pretty traditional sector, with all sorts of arcane conventions about how business is done, but the company feels bold enough to change because the implications of its poor delivery have been brought home to management. These included lost sales through slow quotations, poor client retention through sloppy administration, and making no profit on smaller clients because paperwork was so elaborate.

It helps if the dissatisfaction is felt at the top, so if you can muster some facts and figures and present them in a compelling way to your CEO, your cause will be helped considerably.

Take care with your tone of voice: anything that smacks of whistleblowing and blame is unlikely to win you support: other members of the team will close ranks. Take the open, factual tone of information sharing and invite comments: it's a problem you need to solve together.

Be prepared to provide some practical suggestions on ways things can be improved, to start the ball rolling. The good news is that enhancing the quality of meetings needn't involve financial outlay, though tackling poor systems is more costly and may require external resource.

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