for turbulent times
Boot camp for the inert Organisational dynamics
DON SULL TALKS in a swift baritone, words wafting seamlessly into sentences that stretch the imagination. Pretty much like he writes. It’s exasperating. The voice on the phone is an avalanche of lofty ideas: about organisational modes, about business strategies and about esoteric extrapolations from empirical data of how businesses should behave. “It’s boot camp for executives,” Sull says, his voice flitting between theory and practice, past and present. Boot what? “Basically, a crash course that crams into a short, intense period of time a design on business theory and practice that forces businesses to think about incentives and bringing in the right people. It’s about adapting.”
While I could easily be reading the stuff in Eric Bonheicker’s seminal work Evolutionary Economics, it’s now Sull’s voice suggesting if you want to understand the art of business leadership you should grasp two “consonant” factors. “In relatively stable markets the boat was moving fast and its occupants thought it was because it had a big engine. But it was the tailwind.” The point? “The boat drifted out of boom-time conditions into choppy waters on a blind sail. Environmental change over at least the past 20 years forced adaptation. Now it’s not enough for leaders to craft the “perfect strategy” and expect the market to co-operate.” Right, so what’s the alternative? “Thing is, a two-year course designed by Ivy League institutions like Harvard needed a vitamin boost. In a few weeks we had to cut the fluff out and get leaders to adapt to serious environmental changes.”
Those consonant threads evolved into a formidable Harvard study by Sull a decade ago into successful and failed businesses in volatile markets. “Nobody could predict the future any more and a mismatch between theory and practice led to my research question. Besides, most research was in the United States, which led to idiosyncratic generalisations that couldn’t be reproduced in volatile markets.”
Though the research agenda may be less mystical, but before we get to the nub what of the proliferation of studies by business coaches into organisational dynamics?
Which is all well and good, says Sull. “Nobody had designed a research agenda that looked at a mix of industries in turbulent countries – such as Russia, India and China – and probed whether the underlying drivers of volatility were different in emerging markets.”
Perhaps. In fact, Sull’s study was, in a large way, an attempt to find valid and creative answers to such questions. Over a 10-year timeline Sull set out to gather a combination of case studies of comparable companies.
“One of the high level findings was that most firms in turbulent times focus on organisational strategy. But the only thing we know about strategy is that it’s wrong.”
All a bit scholastic, but the point’s well made. Sull’s view is that companies get stuck in a “feel good” mode by adopting strategies that exclude a lot. The attitude of leaders, he says, is often keeping uncertainty subdued – even if that means excising the unsavoury bits.
“We go out of our way to understand competition but seldom grasp that the map we construct is outmoded,” Sull says. “Most firms focus on organisational changes that focus on mid-term goals. They recruit the best and brightest minds in the world. But if you don’t understand change the best and brightest will count for little.”
And it seems organisational adaptation is the point.
“Once you recognise your strategy isn’t going to be complete – and may even be wrong – your focus has to shift to changing your organisation. It’s basic human behaviour.”
Indeed, even in his hometown of Ohio in the US, Sull was hardly the change dynamo he’s become. “I was educated by Jesuits, who drummed into you their job to save souls but they never taught you about the soul that got away.”
That soul was Sull, who went on to become a classicist after reading philosophy at the University of Munich. Somewhere along the way his reminiscences of growing up in Ohio brought back unsavoury memories of his grandfather. “He worked for US Steel, which was a lumbering hulk. Then US Steel went bankrupt and that got me thinking: how could a powerful organisation which defined US presidents because of its influence go down, and how could Ohio suddenly become a ghost town?”
The very act of thinking broke the mould for Sull. And that’s essentially what Sull has been telling his boot camp senior executives.
These days he brackets his scholastic abstractions into two active words: