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Globality: Harold L. Sirkin

Process vs. Progress: Is Your Job at Risk?

My home state of Illinois is a major transportation hub, a leading manufacturing center, and one of America's top producers of soybeans, corn, and coal. We also rank at or near the top in machine politics and government corruption, with three former governors—Otto Kerner Jr., Daniel Walker, and George Ryan—sent to prison, and another, Rod ("Blago") Blagojevich, impeached earlier this year and removed from office after allegedly trying to sell President Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat.

Given this penchant for corruption, you'd think members of the General Assembly would do everything in their power to repair our state's reputation. Instead, some lawmakers would rather block reform. For example, after House Bill 5, a modest proposal that would have prohibited registered lobbyists from accepting compensation from state agencies, passed the House, a state senator used a back-door political maneuver to hijack the bill and bury it in a Senate committee where it will eventually die.

In one way, I understand why hijacking is so common among politicians and bureaucrats. Solving problems could result in the termination of programs and a lessening of authority and funding. But it's pretty common in the corporate world, too. People use their talent and energy to thwart what needs to get done in the belief that a change in the status quo could threaten their jobs. In normal times, this type of behavior is bad enough. In today's environment, this can be fatal. But the ubiquitousness of hijacking doesn't mean we have to accept it. The challenge is to recognize the institutional hijackers, understand how they play the game, and then figure out how to go around, over, or through them to get the job done.

In most cases, corporate hijackers are not obvious, employing tactics that might seem perfectly reasonable—only carrying them to an extreme. One such ploy is to study things to death. Corporate hijackers have learned that "further study" is one of the best ways not to get things done. As a consultant, I get many calls asking me to do studies on one topic or another. If I don't know the company well, I always ask, "Have you looked at this issue already?"

Avoiding "Shelfware"

I've turned down countless requests to assist companies when I find I would be the third, fourth, fifth, or even the sixth consultant to study the same subject. (In the consulting business, we call these often useless, redundant reports "shelfware" because they usually end up gathering dust on shelves somewhere.) Alas, shelfware can waste time and money, and delay or sidetrack needed action.

Another hijacker trick is to create bureaucratic obstacles, forcing people to jump through unnecessary hoops when they should be doing what they were hired to do. A nationally prominent executive I've come to know well worked for the same organization for 25 years. For most of those years, his mandate from the CEO was simple: "You're the expert: Do what you think is needed to get the job done." For 22 years, everyone was happy. My friend and his team became known nationally as the best in their business.

Then things changed. The same CEO somehow became enamored with "process." To accommodate his busy travel schedule, he asked all of his top executives to provide him with written updates—quarterly at first, then monthly, then weekly—on what they were doing and why. Then the second-guessing began: Shouldn't you have done this rather than that? Then the mandates: All of the organization's managers, top to bottom, were to enroll in professional development courses.

My friend was spending more time getting less done, and he was no longer enjoying his work. His time was being wasted meeting bureaucratic requirements rather than delivering results. He pushed back. But after a few years of mounting frustration, he packed his awards and fled.

The requirement that you jump through hoops is based on an implicit assumption that process is more important than progress. How you get there is more important than where you end up. However, I've never seen a CEO successfully explain to stock analysts why poor results were good because the company followed the right processes. Process, of course, can be important, and internal reviews are healthy. But hijackers typically focus on process not to make things better or to ensure things are happening as they should be but to exercise control or deflect attention from more important matters, even if doing so blocks progress.

Focusing on process can be a comfortable refuge from having to think about results. A sales exec, for example, will produce an impressive three-color deck documenting the sharp increase in sales calls his team has made, including the record number of visits with new potential clients. Or a marketing executive might bury top management in detailed information about the focus groups she's convened and how she's using the insights to build the brand through Twitter, MySpace, and other social networking outlets. But if the additional sales calls aren't accompanied by additional orders, and the focus groups and tweets have no impact on brand recognition or the company's reputation, process has subsumed progress.

So what should you do when you see symptoms of hijacking in your own company?

1) Listen carefully. During tough economic times, more people than ever will work harder than ever to stay out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind, and perhaps a slightly lesser chance of being out of a job. Such timidity should worry you. So watch carefully for signs of delaying tactics and listen carefully for signs of frustration among the troops because things aren't getting done. Subordinates always know when "the big stall" is on. Don't just accept reports that show things heading in the right direction. Almost anybody is capable of a snow job, so insist on proof. Activity is never a substitute for results. Process is never a substitute for progress.

2) Bypass roadblocks, expose problems. If a superior is deliberately not getting things done that need to get done, you may want to go around him or find a way to make the big stall apparent. There is clear risk in doing this, but also a clear risk in not doing anything. You need to find the right people who are willing to listen and help you take action.

3) If all else fails, consider your career options. If the art of not getting things done is putting your company at risk, your job also is at risk—and you need to start looking for other places to work.

The U.S. can no longer afford to allow hijackers to put their insecurities or personal interests ahead of the interests of their company, their community, or our country. We are facing the largest economic and competitive challenge of our lives. We must find ways to stop hijackers by going around, over, or through them to ensure that what needs to get done does get done—on time and well.

For companies, one of the most important competitive advantages is the ability to move quickly in an uncertain environment. To do this, the skill that boards and managers need most is the ability to identify and stop hijackers.

Harold L. Sirkin is a Chicago-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group and author, with James W. Hemerling and Arindam K. Bhattacharya, of GLOBALITY: Competing with Everyone from Everywhere for Everything (Business Plus, June, 2008).

Harold L. Sirkin is a Chicago-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and co-author, most recently, of The U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: How Shifting Global Economics Are Creating an American Comeback (Knowledge@Wharton, November 2012).

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