Methodology du jour - in search of the Holy Grail

Hell, there are no rules here - we're trying to accomplish something - Thomas A. Edison
The Holy Grail?
Holy Grail?
As quickly as new tools, techniques and methodologies are being created and promoted, we probably should have solved all of the world's business and IT problems by now.  We've paid a fortune and spent enormous time to learn to manage by objectives, reengineer ourselves, swim with sharks, obliterate and flatten the organization, decentralize, turn everything into objects, treat everyone as our customer, earn a black belt, be agile, be gentle and be warriors, and to do it all in one minute.  So why is it that so many organizations are still broken?  Is all of this just medicine show snake oil?

A few years back, after lunch with a new client, we went back to her office to discuss how I might help her improve the operation and efficiency of her organization.  As Senior VP of Information Technology for a huge insurance company at the beginnings of a recession, she had major challenges to deal with: changing technology, shrinking budgets, disenchanted staff and disappointed customers to name a few.  One of the first questions I asked was whether her company had already invested in and committed to a standardized methodology or approach to guide operations and improvement. She smiled at me, gesturing to a large floor-to-ceiling bookcase. "Sure”, she said with a laugh. “About a hundred of them."

If you're like many managers, you may have tried to keep up with the latest thinking about the best way to manage and organize. Depending on your role, you've either told your people, or have been told, to embrace "the new ways" that the company will be run.  Some of these programs have persuasive approaches and can be pretty exciting.  I know that the first time I was part of a "quality circle" program, it felt as if I were right at the leading edge of organizational reform and radical process improvement.

After you've been through your third or fourth such program, you can't help but start wondering.  "Which quality program are we trying this year?" you might ask.  One of my clients, a billion dollar R&D firm, had actually – and unwittingly – engaged two different consulting firms, at about $3 million each, to develop and implement process quality improvement programs.  Neither of the client’s program managers was aware of the other one's initiative -- until they collided during enterprise rollout. I’m really not making this up – and I can pretty much guarantee that anyone reading this is familiar with the company. Even with what seems, from the outside, to be an obvious and stupid mistake, it took another year before the two competing programs were curtailed and later customized, merged and restarted as a single program, at significant additional direct cost as well as the opportunity cost associated with major delays in the process improvement that was the original justification for the program.

What really makes the situation difficult to work out is that a good many of these tools and techniques really do have value.  Object orientation is a powerful metaphor for decomposition, analysis and design.  Customer driven processes make good sense.  It would be pointless to argue with the values espoused by Lean Management, Six Sigma, Kaizen, or many of the other methodologies that are popular these days.  Is it just that, even though our ideas are good, we're lousy implementers?

Eventually, organizations become cynical.  It's a toss-up whether it's the staff or management who gives up first on organizational change and “improvement”.  Especially in a time of corporate belt-tightening, where "right sizing" is the euphemism for "down sizing", management becomes justifiably reluctant to foot the bill for yet another massive change management program.  The employees in the trenches are usually the ones whose jobs and lives are most disrupted by the latest quality imperative, and they're rapidly becoming fed up with the "methodology du jour" approach.

While we're here, understand that the problems I've touched on all exist when you're dealing with legitimate methodologies and programs, no matter how good they are.  There's also another wrinkle to this mess.  It’s all too common these days that any time a good idea or new product is rolled out, a dozen variations on the theme are spawned by eager competitors who see a chance to ride, and profit from, the latest wave.

I've seen a particularly pernicious form of this in my own industry.  Many IT staff augmentation firms (sometimes known as “body shops”), that otherwise perform a useful service by renting supplemental staff to clients, have noticed that management consulting firms have much higher billing rates, billing multiples and profit margins.  Many of the body shops have been busily repackaging themselves as management consulting firms.  Their marketing people and executives have learned to talk about methodology, value chains, quality imperatives, strategy and road-mapping, ITIL, managed services and more. Marketing and pre-sales collateral is created. Sales people are briefed, and they are sent out to convince clients that their company is suddenly qualified to deliver the same kind of services normally obtained from the tier one consulting firms. Contracts are signed, sales targets are raised, clients expect results, and delivery teams are pressured to produce. The potential for failure is enormous, and when this happens, everyone loses.

Expertise and competence can’t be reduced to a set of formulas.  Methodology, process and structure are important and valuable – but they do not substitute for experience and the true understanding of the principles that make any of these work. Learning to articulate these principles, and working to ensure that the organization understands and internalizes them, and that rules and defined processes are in line with these principles, is far more valuable.

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