How do you overcome corporate vertigo? Think Big, Spend Small, Quick Wins

It seems the higher we climb up the corporate mountain, the more susceptible we become to vertigo. 

When we first join an organisation we are given tasks which expose us to the mechanics of the organisation. The corporate culture is revealed through these activities (‘the way things are done around here’ to quote Snowden), and we participate in the core activities required to delivered profit.

Individuals identified as having potential become ‘apprentices’ though they may be labelled ‘management trainee.’ Regardless of the title, the teaching philosophy remains the same. The apprentice is given increasingly Complex tasks, learning through (tolerated) mistakes a long the way. Improved practice and confidence follow, and those who respond appropriately climb the corporate mountain, and the scope of their responsibilities expands commensurately.  

With the increase in altitude comes extra exertion—and extra exposure. The pastured foothills are long gone, the pathway is narrower, the drop steeper; the implications of a misplaced step on the wet granite are constantly plays out in our mind.  We lift our head to look forward and see an increasingly treacherous ascent into cloud. Going back would result in a loss of face, going forward is increasingly scary, risky and uncertain.

Some of us freeze.  

Should this occur in the outdoors, the outcome would be one of two ways; calm resolution by placing trust in other members in the group, or a spreading panic with potential loss of life. 

My family is from Snowdonia, North Wales, and when the weather was too poor to dive off Anglesey, I would volunteer with the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team. A typical mountain rescue call-out would occur when groups with little cumulative hill climbing experience overran their capabilities.  

The highest density of calls arose when ‘gaggles of city folk’ would tackle a walk that would move quickly from a protected broad path to a narrow one with obvious exposure, and Crib Goch (pictured) seemed to have magical powers of attraction. After traversing the first 50 m, bravado was replaced by doubt and with the slightest updraft, doubt was soon deposed by panic. 

 Arrival of the rescuers was often the time of the greatest danger. It was not unusual for the panicked to initially rebuff instructions from the rescue team, only to spring forward and cling to a rescuer moments later. Not even the sturdiest of mountain men can defy the laws of physics so, with more experience, techniques and equipment were developed in order to aid the distressed without endangering the rescuers.

The corporate equivalent is nothing new of course.  For sometime we have been aware that, as one steps up the organisation ladder, there seems to be an accompanying desire to seek less and less uncertainty about the corporate future. 

Paradoxically, all of our experience and training has been for in preparation for this moment. We have been given the opportunity to resolve the business' most Complex intractable problems. However, for some reason, we freeze, and seek a world that is more ordered, certain and predictable. This manifests in an expectation for our direct reports to provide budgets which are not forecasts, but predictions of guaranteed outcomes.

 In my experience, corporate vertigo kicks in when we have no confidence that our customer offer is better and different than the competition. We then cling to the rock face of cost reduction and increased controls, flinging our arms around the first trend that promises rescue. The result can be calamitous.  Companies that trusted “Creating Shareholder Value” at the detriment of customer satisfaction joined the list of fatalities.

Being better and different than the competition cannot be achieved with certainty.  It requires constant, considered experimentation undertaken quickly and with a modest excess of resources. It is neither reckless nor anarchic.

You cannot build a magnetic organisation while sitting in a crag with neither the confidence to go up nor the fortitude to back down.

You developed through cautious experimentation. Stick to the method but apply it on a grander scale. 

Think Big. Spend Small. Quick Wins.

A small case study on how this can be practically applied will be published next week.