Friday, February 09, 2007

Organizational Success Illusions

Truth-a proper and clear understanding of reality-is the key to success in organizations, teams,relationships, and careers. In fact, the departure point for all achievement is a relentless commitment to truth-truth about who we are, where we're headed, where the market is going, what our customers want, what our core competencies are (and whether anyone cares), what our core limitations are (and whether anyone can help us), and what our employees are thinking.
The enemy of truth is illusion. illusion is "a false interpretation by the mind ... a belief or hope that has no real substance."Illusion comes when we perceive something to be true that isn't true or is only partly true. Illusion comes because we want to believe the thing is true. Illusion is often-perhaps always-tied into false hope.
This false hope is usually driven by our desire to avoid facing problems-and the pain that comes from facing them and attempting to solve them. It's easier to search for ways to market a formerly successful product that is now falling in sales than to gaze unflinchingly into the reality that the product is on the verge of extinction. "when the horse is dead, get off," says an old proverb-but it's incredibly but it's incredibly easy to keep trying to ride an old horse even after the stench of death has set in.
It's is always easier to hope that a problem will go away or solve itself than it is to shred bad ideas or to abandon good ideas that gone sour. And the more the reality of the situation diverges from our desire to avoid pain and from our false hope, the more we need and will use illusion to disguise the gap.
Illusions are living things. Like layer upon layer of paint added to a rotting wall, illusions tend to produce more illusions. We may, for example, deceive ourselves into thinking that the problem is marketing rather than acknowledging that the product is a goner. This first illusion leads to a second one-that the marketing department needs a shake up-and when that fails, to a third illusion-that what we really need is a new marketing concept.
This is the disastrous path that illusions put us on and then drive us along. They cause us to "solve" a problem by adding another layer of illusion and, when the rot breaks through, to paint it again. Illusions cause us to head into the netherworld of organizational fantasy and to "solve" problems that may not be the problem-or any problem at all. Organizations spend an unbelievable amount of time and energy attempting to treat symptoms. Much of this effort nearely shuffles illusions around.
The hardest part for any organization is how to overcome its pride, its self-image, and its dreams. It is difficult to admit that we need to stop painting a rotting wall. It can be equally difficult to admit that we just wasted three years on a lousy idea. Therefore, the value of shredding illusions is that we begin to face the real problems, which are the only news worthy of being solved, the only ones that make a difference. We peel off the paint, layer by layer, so that we can determine the condition of the wall. Then, and only then, can we determine accurately whether to repair the wall or tear it down and build something better.
Another old saying reminds us that when we know the truth, we can be free-free from myths, free from misperceptions that lead us down unhelpful paths, free from bad ideas disguised as "traditions" or "culture,"and free from opinions that just don't hold up under the relentless flood of marketplace reality.
The danger of illusions is that sometimes we do not know what we are looking for, so we make our decisions about the organization on the basis of outward appearances alone. Illusions sometimes help people gain and maintain their power, not because we're ignorant of reality, but because we sense or know the reality and choose to avoid it. We might tell ourselves that we don't know anything different or have all the facts, while what we're really doing is entering More deeply into the process of illusion building.
Again, this deception is compounded when new reinforce each other's illusions. I tell you your layoff plan sounds appropriate (suppressing doubts about the long-term effect on morale and innovation), and you tell me my reorganization should fix our poor customer service (suppressing questions about my lack of agreed-upon goals and training). We can all have ears that itch to hear what they want to hear. Reality is present and available, but "it evaporates in a friendly conspiracy of illusion" according to James Lucas in his book Fatal Illusions.

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