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Bullshit bingo in the boardroom

September 27, 2017

Organizations need to change. But not at all costs.

"We have to shape digital transformation!" "Being disruptive is the name of the game!" "Our organization should become more agile!" Across the country, statements like these can be heard during panel discussions and meetings. We need to deal with change. But we prefer to play bullshit bingo instead - the one who says "agility", "disruption" or "new work" more often than anybody else wins. This, it seems, is the prevailing attitude among top executives and heads of HR. At present, digitalization, entrepreneurship mentality and digital transformation are being mentioned in the same breath as innovation and change. All of these are buzzwords. But what is frequently lacking is a debate about how "change" and "digital transformation" are supposed to happen.

The discussions are superficial. But appeals telling people what has to be done and recipes for action are coming thick and fast. Everything that is not up a tree by the count of three gets mentally digitalized. And as far as the offline world is concerned, task forces are being set up for starters.

Or: Fear is managing change. We are hastily booking design-thinking seminars, are devouring books on lean management and are introducing Scrum and Kanban. The powers that be are ordering that things be changed - or innovated, for that matter. External advisers are being brought in. In-house innovation officers are being appointed. And the fear of imminent - but unavoidable - change is leaving employees paralyzed.

We have to innovate. But what does this mean? Innovation at all costs can be as hard on organizations as the creative producer's new chocolate pizza can be on our taste buds. Just because something is new does not mean it makes sense.

The first step would be simple enough: Focus on what really matters.

When I talk to organizations about executive-education programs, I frequently encounter the following situation: They do not really know what their employees need, nor are they fully aware of what their customers want. Because they do not talk to them. They want to be innovative, but they fail to ask the questions that really matter in this context: What do you want? What do you need in order to get it? And what is it that we want to achieve together?

So I raise my voice and shout amid all the buzzwords: Stop the bullshit bingo! Suppress your reflexive urge to demand that anything and anybody be innovative. Talk to your employees and your customers. Think about where digitalization is truly meaningful. Talk about what digital transformation really means for you and your organizations. Talk about the things that exist already, appreciate the strengths of your employees, and listen to what your customers have to say. Take their ideas seriously. Take the stage and say that it is possible to be innovative without relying on design thinking (just for the record: I am a fan of design thinking; it is a wonderful tool, provided you use it in the right situations). Each and every organization is inherently capable of truly meaningful innovation because it has employees who bring creative and new ideas to the table, and customers who are happy to talk about their needs.

Scrum, Kanban, design thinking, agile management: While all of these tools and approaches are useful, they are just a means to an end, and certainly no silver bullet that will allow organizations to take the uncertainty out of the future. Hence, the important question is not: What approaches and tools are we going to use? But: Who are we as an organization, and who do we want to be in the future? Not to forget, of course: Who are our customers, and what do we know about them that has to be taken into account? What is important as far as innovation and change are concerned is that executives set an example for others to follow, and that they focus, first and foremost, on what exists already. Also, it is vital for organizations to actively involve their employees and customers in the process of change because you cannot make innovation and change happen from on high. They are the result of what will happen when you allow people to do things on their own initiative. They are the result of what will happen when you encourage your employees to accept responsibility, and appreciate and value them for what they do. They are the result of what will happen when you outline your goals and communicate your strategies clearly.

“And now?” you ask. While there is no magic formula for achieving success when it comes to innovation and change, there are some things you can do to make success more likely:

  • Lower your ego: Executives need to begin with themselves. That is the first step toward meaningful change. Give the opinions of others serious consideration and ask for feedback. I often encounter executives who are overly cautious about pushing change too far because they fear that the organizational culture might be negatively affected.
  • Communicate clearly and transparently: Innovation projects fail because there is no strategy, communication is unclear and employee acceptance is missing. Ensuring clear and open communication from the word go helps avoid these problems.
  • Look at the big picture and create spaces for learning and development: What do tomorrow's customers want? Where can we be successful? As Clayton Christensen put it: “Big companies fail because they do everything right”—and in doing everything right, they fail to pay enough attention to consequential changes in the world around them.
  • Ease the pressure: Do we have to be innovative at all costs? You cannot reinvent your organization overnight. Build on the things that work. In what areas is your organization agile already? Where do good ideas exist? What really matters in this context is to ask questions and listen to what people have to say.
  • Revolutionize intelligently: The customer, not the bullshit bingo, determines what is interesting. What lies behind buzzwords is not an end in itself but serves the purpose of improving the situation for customers, organizations and employees.

Bullshit bingo, or no bullshit bingo—that is the question you need to address.

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