Yak shaving

Someone said to me that he was yak shaving and I had to look up the phrase. It turns out to be:

'Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you're working on.' origin: MIT AI Lab, after 2000: orig. probably from a Ren & Stimpy episode.

It's a great phrase and, sadly, I think I'm in the position where it could become a much-used phrase in my vocabulary, now I know what it is. I seem to have spent a lot of time this week on seemingly pointless activity. A lot of it to do with form filling and compliance with process demands. My favourite was filling in a form on a Word document to attach to a web page. Before submission I had to fill in, on the web page, the identical information that I'd just filled in on the attached form. I couldn't submit just the word document or just fill in the web page. I could only complete the process by duplicating the information. (What is the cost of that?)

In order to fill in the Word form I had to look up a whole raft of information from a variety of sources – it wasn't all housed in the same location. The actual task could be very straightforward were it not for the layers of process.

This is all a long way of saying I enjoyed reading Jeff Bezos's 2016 Letter to Shareholders that just came out. In it he urges people to avoid becoming a Day 2 company.

Bezos tells us that he spends time making sure Amazon stays a Day 1 company. Because becoming a Day 2 company means '… stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.' He offers us 'a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making.'

It's the skeptical view proxies that caught my attention. Read what he says and you'll see why:

As companies get larger and more complex, there's a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it's dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.

A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you're not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you're doing the process right. Gulp. It's not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, "Well, we followed the process." A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It's always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it's the second.

The other points in his letter are equally useful to anyone trying to design a more effective organisation – and at this moment it is hard to argue that Amazon is not a trailblazer or successful in its design. (That doesn't mean it is also faultless as this article reminds us).

What Bezos says has echoes in a piece by Rosabeth Moss Kanter who discusses nine symptoms of corporate decline. One of which is 'Initiative decreases' : this symptom looks like 'Discredited and demoralized, people become paralyzed by anxiety. Believing that nothing will ever change, people go passive, following routines but not taking initiative even on small things, and certainly not seeking innovation or change. Policies and processes are perceived to be ingrained and inevitable, shutting off new ideas. ' (my bolding)

Fortunately, and I agree with her, Moss Kanter says that these symptoms are reversible. 'Leaders can guide productive, inclusive, and empowering actions that build winners' habits. Even when the signs of decline are all around us, it's still possible to shift the culture. Heeding the warnings is a good first step.'

What's interesting is that heeding the warnings is more than just noticing them. It is doing something about them. That's more difficult and she offers a list to help including, for example, 'Work on reducing inequities and status differences.'

I think one of the roles of an organization designer is to notice the un-necessary yak shaving, and help organizations think 'Day 1'. Even if you've already hit 'Day 2' a turnaround is possible.

How do you tackle the symptoms of 'Day 2' and the activity of organizational yak shaving? Let me know.

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