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The shock of the old

By Stephen Langton - November 17, 2011

The Bush House Telegraph
News and views from the Deloitte Center for Strategic Leadership, Bush House, London

Forget innovation and originality, in the work of the consultant the old leadership lessons matter most.

Getting Unstuck imageA colleague recently complained to me that we don’t do anything new at Deloitte, just “re-visit old truths.”

“Would you prefer it if we re-visited old lies?” I replied—in an authoritative, yet avuncular way.

“Hmmm…” she murmured and returned, flat-footed, to her desk.

Had she been in the mood—and had I more time—I’d probably have treated her to a few “old truths” about consultants. But her loss, dear reader, is your gain.

The fact is we seldom trade in new things. Scientists offer discoveries and breakthroughs; consultants, generally, experience and insight.

In my field, leadership, a subject anatomized for thousands of years—think of the Tao Te Ching and The Republic—there’s little we can come up with that hasn’t been thought of before. Our job is not to re-invent the wheel but to add new value to those old truths—and help clients apply the lessons of leadership in ways that will benefit their organizations. We’re about practical solutions for old problems—transformations, possibly; revolutions, no.

Why do old problems keep recurring? Why can’t leadership lessons just be learned once?

Because of the size and complexity of modern organizations. Silos and vertical structures impede the flow of information—and prevent project integration. There are too many degrees of separation between the leaders who are the agents of change and the employees asked to implement it. Competing demands on managers mean the fundamentals are often ignored—to the long-term detriment of organizations. (A case in point: my failure to take my colleague to one side and discuss her concerns.)

The inherent weaknesses of large organizations are amply demonstrated in a new study from GovLab, Deloitte’s public sector think tank. The report, Getting Unstuck: How to work As One in government, reprises recent successes and failures in public policy initiatives. In the latter category is the U.S. Department of Defense's attempt to introduce performance-related pay for its 600,000 civilian employees. Begun in 2004, the scheme was withdrawn by President Obama in 2009. Why? Several factors—including exorbitant transition costs—have been blamed, but they are, says GovLab, “only part of the story.” The fatal flaw was a “disconnect” between employees and the organization. Workers refused to accept the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) not because they were ideologically opposed to it but because of the way it was being introduced. The pay pool panels set up to review DoD employees’ performance were out of touch with the objectives of the employees they were rating—a problem made worse by imprecise and outdated job definitions.

Says the report: “DoD did not involve employees and managers across the organization in planning the deployment.”

Mistakes like this are why an external perspective is so important. As the report states: “Without a broad analysis and targeted strategy, any change effort is liable to founder on the underlying chaos that affects large organizations and inhibits collaboration.” (My italics.)

What might a “broad analysis and targeted strategy,” “facilitated” by a consultant, look like?

GovLab promotes the role of the As One approach in helping solve some of the public sector’s problems. As One, my regular reader(s) may remember, is a leadership tool, developed between 2008 and 2010 by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, and currently managed by me. It helps leaders lay the groundwork for change by measuring the commitment, engagement, and ability to act of followers (employees). It’s built on the premise that there are three essential elements of successful collaboration: shared identity, directional intensity, and common interpretation. If an initiative or strategy is to succeed, those implementing it must identify closely with those leading it, they must understand and fully support organizational goals, and they must share the leader’s ideas of how tasks can and should be done.

As One identifies problems and the interventions necessary to solve them.

By finding the levels of an organization people identify with most closely—their local team, division, or the “global brand”—leaders can decide where the new initiative should be led. “If employees identify strongly with their local offices, local leaders should deliver messages and instructions,” says the GovLab report.

If they know the extent of employee understanding of and commitment to goals, leaders know what they most need to communicate—and to whom. If they identify a mismatch between leadership styles and the task at hand and preferred ways of working, they can correct it—before it’s too late.

As One is a tool that cuts through the complexity of organizational life and tries to find what works. It “institutionalizes” change by creating the “working culture” to support it.

You didn’t hear any of its principles here first—but they bear repeating.

Stephen LangtonStephen Langton is Managing Director, Deloitte Center for Strategic Leadership, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and has specialized in the field of leadership consulting for the past 16 years. His aim for DCSL is simple but ambitious: to be a center of excellence that understands, defines, and advances a knowledge and standard of leadership for the world.


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Hamoon - Thanks for commenting. I'm one of the administrators of this global blog, and think you make a good point about breaking down hierarchy/spreading ownership and encouraging intellectual diversity. We started this blog mainly to showcase perspectives from Deloitte leaders and try to make them a little more accessible and give a personal spin to our thought leadership. But I think there's something to be said for also sharing perspectives from those "lower down the rungs." Will consider this and see if we can perhaps round up some other potential contributors.

So did you end up having a chat with the colleague after all, Stephen?

"There are too many degrees of separation between the leaders who are the agents of change and the employees asked to implement it."

I wholeheartedly agree with your point about silos in the previous sentence and think they're one of the most pervasive issues in organizations

But I think another one of the most biggest organizational issues is what your quote above suggests and what the As One approach also implies: that the leaders are the agents of change ad the employees are the troops; that the 'message' should come from the leaders and received by the employees.

There is an alternative model - one that spreads the ownership, breaks down the hierarchy, that aims for diversity (not the usual proxies of diversity but intellectual / perspective diversity) in decision-making.

What would that look like? Barry's strategy sessions would include field troops, our Global blogs would be written by you as well as a new hire in Singapore, and as a firm we'd get a ton more out of our people than we do today.

So you're right - losing perspective of the lessons of the old is a foolish idea but probably so is not experimenting with new ways of doing old things.

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