I’ve worked in corporate America for nearly 20 years — both on the inside (in IT and line of business functions) and the outside (as a consultant) — and one thing has been true for those two decades: organizations have a real problem getting stuff done.
From planning and budgeting to execution and follow up, it seems like work gets done despite the organization’s best efforts to prevent it from happening.
Before I was a consultant, this inability to get stuff done was frustrating, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I was just another brick in the wall of ineffective corporate America. But as a consultant for the last 12 years, it’s my job to help organizations get stuff done, so I can’t just throw up my hands and muddle through.
The first step to figuring out how to help your organization complete work is to articulate the likely reasons why things aren't getting done. And while the specifics can differ from organization to organization, I’ve found that an organization’s inability to get stuff done can be attributed to one (or more) of five high level causes:
- The budgeting process
- The calendar year paradigm
- Org chart blinders
- The shareholder value trap
- Profitable mediocrity
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn. Hopefully doing so will help you diagnose the monkey wrench in your organization’s works and allow you to start finding the solution.
A Budgeting Process that Cripples Projects
I wasn’t lucky enough (or old enough) to work at GE under Jack Welch in the 1980s, so I’ve only heard about the lean, efficient and effective budgeting process he implemented there, which (if I’m remembering right) was something like four weeks long. Can you imagine that? Having 11 months to execute on the work that’s been approved before having to do it all over again for next year’s budget?
Probably not, because at most organizations I’ve seen, budgeting lasts from late spring to mid-fall — in the best case. At some highly dysfunctional organizations, I've seen it go from May to February before the funds allocated to projects actually get released for spend … and then three months later, it all starts again. That's no recipe for getting budgets done, let alone the projects they’re supposed to enable.
Fitting Long-Term Work into a Fiscal Year
Although we all know a calendar year (or fiscal year) is an arbitrary time horizon, we subject the vast majority of work in the organization to it. We think in terms of quarters and halves and use 12 months as a unit of time for planning and scoping work, rewarding performance and even for structuring our relationships with our clients and customers. I think all of us have been on the receiving end of a vendor’s hard sell tactics as the end of a quarter approaches: “This pricing expires at midnight the last day of March/June/September/December, so you better act now.”
Despite how annoying these tactics are, the effects of the fiscal year on the internal workings of an organization are much worse. Not all work can be started and completed within a calendar year. But at most organizations, work that carries over from one calendar/fiscal year to the next is such a nightmare to budget, it’s not even worth trying. And forget about projects that take more than a year. Try getting a 15-month project approved and see what happens (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).
The Obstacle of Organizational Silos
Large, complex organizations need structure to function. Traditional business units like finance, IT, marketing, sales, customer service and more are absolutely critical to enabling any organization to function.
And while the mundane, day-to day work of organizations fits the contours of the org chart (e.g., processing invoices or handling customer complaints), most of the other work that needs to get done doesn’t. Many projects will address the pain felt by one department but require resources and time from another that feels less (or no) pain, and the latter department will have to pay for the fix without reaping many (or any) benefits.
The results are predictable: critical work doesn’t get done (or takes far longer to get done) because it cuts across the silos of the org chart, which structures how your organization functions.
Corporate Goals vs. Shareholder Goals
It’s hard when dealing with corporate America to avoid bumping up against the pervasive and (to my mind) largely negative effect of shareholder value on publicly traded organizations. Companies are so focused on whether they can satisfy shareholders, that they short-change other equally important corporate goals (like employee satisfaction, customer experience or social responsibility).
Executives are incentivized for hitting their forecasted quarterly EPS rather than (or at least much more than) longer term goals. Corporations still strive for these other goals, but only when they contribute to shareholder value. So prioritizing spending money and resources to achieve a goal that’s two or three (let alone 10) years out is rarely going to happen in a publicly traded company. This means the stuff that tends to get done is the stuff that supports shareholder value (narrowly defined as quarterly EPS).
A Profitable Status Quo
There's nothing worse than a C+ company that’s wildly profitable — that’s so inefficient, ineffective and saddled with a Rube Goldberg tangle of processes and technologies that you wonder how it manages to be so profitable … yet it is. And, if you’re a leave it better than you found it person like I am, you scratch your head at how so many leaders allow so many problems to stand without doing anything (or at least anything substantive) to fix them.
That is, until you put your executive hat on and ask yourself: how much more money will going from a C+ to a B put in our corporate pockets? Will the effort, time and risk be worth it? Wouldn’t it be easier to just maintain the (highly profitable) status quo? And the answer will be, if you’re being completely honest, “Keep things the way they are, and keep making good money.”
Part of keeping things the way they are is quite explicitly not getting stuff done — or at least not any more stuff than absolutely necessary to maintain the status quo (and your substantial profits).
As you might expect, there are no simple solutions to the problems we’ve looked at here, but the first step in finding a cure is reaching a diagnosis. Hopefully the diagnosis I’ve laid out here gives you food for thought in addressing the potential reasons why your organization struggles to get stuff done and can be the first step toward helping you find a way to address them.