Frogs into princes

'In the olden days when wishing still worked' opens the fairy story – The Frog Prince. In it an ugly frog is transformed into a handsome prince. It's a classic tale serving not just as a good children's story but as a basis for observations on society. In one cartoon related to the story a frog longingly looks up at a young princess and says "But I don't want to be turned into a prince. I want you to accept me for what I am." In another a very jaded and irritated king and queen sit in their thrones next to one another as the king turns to her and says "If you must know, yes! I was happier when I was a frog!"

As a child I loved the story and I still like the notion that frogs can be transformed into princes (or that princes can be turned into frogs). Now I'm trying to apply the idea to organizations. Can organizations be 'transformed'? It seems easy enough for 'prince' organizations to be transformed into 'frog' organizations. BlackBerry is a case in point. Read about its rise and fall here. Is it now doomed to remain an ugly frog – did you know their original device was called the Leapfrog – or will it be transformed back into a prince by some kiss-like intervention?

One of the many issues cited for BlackBerry becoming a frog in the first place was, not quite an evil witch's spell, but a huge 'increase in bureaucracy, politicking, and a population of time servers'. An article about BlackBerry discusses a book on BlackBerry written by Alistair Sweeney, 'Sweeney described BlackBerry as "like the Soviet Union. Everyone's pretending to work and compared it to another brand-named tech firm with a reputation, deserved or not, for hidebound bureaucracy: Microsoft. RIM, he says, has lost the fire of a startup (despite heavy-handed efforts to recapture it), but without developing into a mature company. One anonymous employee agreed saying "We are no longer a company that is innovative and energetic, we are drowning in paperwork."

Many bureaucratic, long established large and rambling organizations want to transform to become slim, trim, and dynamic – and we hear the phrase 'business transformation' a lot. But is this wishful thinking, an 'olden days' leftover from 'when wishing still worked', or is it achievable?

Gary Hamel, a management academic, firmly states that 'it's understandable that most of us would assume bureaucracy is inevitable-—understandable, but not acceptable. We have to raise our aspirations … "difficult to imagine" doesn't mean "impossible to build." This implies, rightly that wishing for the awakening kiss is not the answer, rather it's 'good management and hard work' (a lovely phrase from the story Charlotte's Web) that provides the transformation. Oh, and a lot of IT. Hamel gives a 15 point list of what a transformed-from–bureaucratic to ideal-non-bureaucratic organization looks like, most of the items heavily IT enabled.

Sadly he doesn't specifically say what time, resource, effort, and will has to go into achieving a state where, for example, (number 4 on his list) 'complex coordination problems are solved peer-to-peer, rather than through top-down mandates; where people have all the information they need to recognize their shared interests, and the collaborative platforms they need to co-create win-win solutions.' I'd love to see the detailed project plan with financials to achieve this: in the absence of it I feel a Dilbert cartoon coming on.

Another item on his list that caught my eye (number 15) was 'Leadership rank is the product of peer-based assessments and objective measures of competence and contribution rather than the product of title or position'. A huge, and expensive, burden in a typical bureaucracy is the performance management system that attempts to objectively measure competence and contribution. Generally such systems fail so let's not attempt ranking by 'objective measures' in a non-bureaucracy. Even if competence and contribution could be measured then the measures would more likely be situational e.g. BlackBerry's CEO was perceived by peer based assessment to be more competent when the share price was highest and less competent when it was lowest.

However, let's applaud the MixHackathon, under Hamel's aegis, for raising the challenge of busting bureaucracy. Its aim is to encourage us to imagine alternatives to the bureaucratic model. The organizers explain that 'In the current phase of the hackathon, we're working to define the attributes of the post-bureaucratic organization-— what new management practices can provide an alternative to the bureaucratic model of top-down control and formal rules and procedures?'

Sam Palmisano, former chairman, president and CEO of IBM introduced the much talked about 'IBM jams', aimed at busting bureaucracy and introducing new management practices. In his 2003 letter to shareholders he said:

So, for 72 hours last summer (2003), we invited all 319,000 IBMers around the world to engage in an open "values jam" on our global intranet. IBMers by the tens of thousands weighed in. They were thoughtful and passionate about the company they want to be a part of. They were also brutally honest. Some of what they wrote was painful to read, because they pointed out all the bureaucratic and dysfunctional things that get in the way of serving clients, working as a team or implementing new ideas. But we were resolute in keeping the dialog free-flowing and candid. And I don't think what resulted – broad, enthusiastic, grass-roots consensus – could have been obtained in any other way.

By many accounts Palmisano was successful. During his nine years as IBM's chairman and CEO Palmisano oversaw a 10.2% annual increase in its stock price and here's what one commentator said 'As he concludes his career [2012], he leaves his successor, Virginia Rometty, with an iconic giant poised to dominate its industry for decades to come.'

But, not so fast to judge success, read what new IBM CEO Virginia Rometty says in her 2013 annual letter to shareholders. She talks of 'transformation' 'IBM is executing a bold agenda. It is reshaping your company, and we believe it will reshape our industry. In this letter I will describe the actions we have taken and are taking, and the changed company that is emerging from this transformation. … However, we must acknowledge that while 2013 was an important year of transformation, our performance did not meet our expectations.'

So did Palmisano's 'transformation' ultimately result in a different form of bureaucracy that now needs 'transformation'? Perhaps 'transformation' isn't so much frog into prince and everything is then hunky dory, but is a situational stage that needs continuous revisiting or there's a reversion to bureaucracy, albeit of a different type.

Peter Rennie commenting on the Gary Hamel blog mentioned above offers a Chinese saying; 'The more things change, the more they remain the same.' In his view 'busting bureaucracy' is the wrong approach. It's better to offer 'a better way', that addresses the fear that things will fall apart without hierarchy. He argues that 'real, sustained change is not dramatic. It is slow'. But isn't slowness one of the hallmarks of bureaucracy?

I think I'm getting stuck like a frog in a swamp. Here's what I've learned so far – the sample size is a small and skewed to tech companies but you'll get the idea: Bureaucracies are unwieldly, un-nimble, and 'olden days' organizations. Organizations of whatever era that start out as slim-trim-dynamic often become bureaucracies. Attempting to transform a bureaucracy to a slim-trim-dynamic state doesn't seem to work very well and it doesn't happen quickly enough for impatient shareholders. Quick transformation isn't possible anyway because 'the more things change the more they remain the same.'

What's your view on transformation? Can bureaucratic frog businesses transform into slim trim dynamic prince businesses and will they then stay that way or will the prince like organization age into wrinkles, sagginess and spread as a real life prince would? Let me know.

NOTE: here's a piece I wrote on business transformation a few years ago.