Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Death By Success

I became pretty good at three of the four Peter Drucker’s day-to-day parallel management activities:

  • organize for systematic and continuing improvement,
  • organize for systematic exploitation of successes and
  • organize for systematic innovation.

Try as I did, I never became very good at the activity he placed #1 on that list.  Drucker used the term “systematic abandonment” but I termed it organizing for systematic “obsolescence” of products, services, markets and distribution channels that are no-longer an optimal allocation of resources.

As I struggled with it personally, I tried delegating the responsibility, building it into strategic plans and organizational culture and teaching the importance of this activity to others so “E” for Effort right?

Each time I jump-started one of the three organizations I led, I leap-frogged passé elements so people mistakenly thought I was pretty good at abandoning obsolete strategies.  I was even pretty good at forecasting obsolescence.  However two conditions always made it hard for me to pull the plug.  One, after you put a lot of blood and sweat and tears into making a strategy a best practice, it is hard to abandon that baby.  Two, sometimes you had to keep a strategy on life-support, e.g. how many of you still have a fax machine in the back room or maybe even a manual typewriter, just in case.closed

What’s even harder for nearly everyone is deciding when an entire organization or type of business is obsolete, such as the phone books cluttering drive-ways and recycling bins this week or outdoor billboards blighting the landscape, landlines to nowhere and soon “broadcast” TV stations.  Non-profits and associations are notorious for ignoring organizational and product life-cycles.

For example, there is a certain type of general-purpose tourism association in nearly every state, typically organized in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, that having successfully fulfilled its mission by the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, has been kept on life-support now by generations of ever-dwindling numbers of members while struggling  through retreat after retreat in search of a new mission or a new “model,” anything new for which the organization can be useful.

We see them all around us, organizations and businesses that should have declared victory, distributed plaques and gone out of business once their original purpose or need for which they were organizations has been fulfilled.   Typically boards of directors fear that if they terminate the organization it will be a poor reflection on the founders or on them.  Often new regimes try to “reinvent” these organizations or businesses.  As they cling to life, attempting to take the lead of every parade that passes by, their desperate attempts to find oxygen sucks resources away from other needs.

These organizations and businesses are kept on life-support by the egos involved or by hoodwinking others via “smoke and mirrors” into believing that they are still relevant. 

Often this is a result of society’s failure to celebrate “death by success” a term coined by Nancy Lublin who writes about why charities should die in the Next Ethonomics section of the current issue of Fast Company Magazine.

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