A few years ago, at the start of my transition back to Ontario, I began the very earnest process or reengaging with my network.
One of my early calls was to a former client of mine, an executive search firm. They are large, well-respected, well-connected and reputable. You’d recognize the name if I mentioned it. What initiated the call was that they have an interim executive operation—essentially, vice presidents and executives on call during periods of transition and change. That’s a whole lot like management consulting, when you get down to it. I figured collaborating with them would be a tremendous way to reconnect with the Toronto marketplace.
The only problem was, they had absolutely no idea what to do with me. At that point, I had more than 25 years of experience under my belt. I had built a management consulting firm from the ground up. I arguably had significant leadership, marketing, consulting, project management, strategy, technology and operational expertise that I had built in the process. And I did not fit the mould one bit.
That day, I came to profoundly realize two things. First, my years as a senior management consultant had rendered me virtually unemployable (even large consulting firms typically don’t hire people like me; they hire people like the me of twenty years ago). Secondly, the way that organizations think about executive positions (and the structure that revolves around those positions) is largely static. In fact, it’s arguably ossified and archaic.
The executive titles that the search firm—and their clients—were looking for were those associated primarily with functional roles. They wanted former vice presidents of marketing, human resources, finance, operations or manufacturing. Chief information officers, chief finance officers and chief operating officers could all find a ready and waiting home. In this context, experience and credibility is measured by the number of direct reports you had, the size of the operating budget you managed and the measurable improvements in productivity that you delivered.
A senior executive that specializes in projects, strategy, change and complex problem solving? Someone who has led multi-million dollar strategic initiatives, but has had zero operating responsibility? They have absolutely no clue what to do with that.
What that speaks to is the astonishing endurance of functional structures as a dominant framework within organizations. It also underscores how resistant organizations truly can be to adaptation and change.
We live in an incredibly dynamic economy. Innovation, complexity, adaptation and evolution are words on every executive’s lips; those terms are sure-fire wins on any buzzword-bingo card. And yet our organizations retain and sustain structures that have been in place for decades or longer.
That this is true is not necessarily surprising. The functional structure of organizations is built around the principles of operations management. The goal is to align common and repetitive functions together within the organization in order to realize optimal productivity gains. In other words, you will be most efficient when you put all the people together that perform essentially similar day-to-day jobs.
There is, of course, a fundamental logic to doing so. This is the enduring legacy of the industrial revolution and scientific management. Go back two hundred years and job specialization didn’t exist. Workers took a product from start to finish, and drew on a range of skills to do so. The assembly line introduced the idea that efficiencies could be realized from repetition and focus, and we’ve just extrapolated from there. That’s why we have organizations built around manufacturing, customer service, finance and the like. It is easy to coordinate, and optimal to organization, when the work is functional and repetitive.
While that’s great when you are dealing with the routine and day-to-day, what happens when the work is dynamic and rife with change? Because that’s the theoretical reality for most organizations today. And yet our structures have yet to catch up with that reality. That’s surprising, to be honest. Because it’s an equally time-honoured tradition that if you want something important and strategic accomplished, you put an executive in charge of it.
Around the turn of a century, an up-and-coming senior management position was the VP of Electricity. Seriously. I am not making this up. The essential principle was that there needed to be executive focus on how to strategically leverage the wondrous opportunities to be tapped into by electrification. And it took a great deal of energy, labour and money to do so. Now, we take electricity for granted. We all know how to plug things into the wall, and innovations like standardized receptacles and circuit breakers have made it comparatively safe for us to do so without an engineering degree. Back then, however, it was a very big deal.
So what’s the current equivalent of the VP of electricity? The above article was asking whether the CIO could fall into that same role. And it certainly might. While it varies depending upon the organization, CIOs are generally expected to support innovation and harness the internet, big data, artificial intelligence and the like in order to gain new competitive advantage. At the same time, we’ve had CIOs around for a few decades now also, and much of their day is often essentially focussed on the technology equivalent of keeping the lights on. While IT organizations do support change, they are also their own functional organization, with a wide spectrum of on-going day-to-day responsibilities of their own.
What we require is not just a focus on technology-enabled change. We need a focus on change writ broadly. The organizations that thrive in the future will in many instances reinvent themselves from the ground up. This won’t just happen once, it will happen many times. We need leadership that can support that kind of change on a large scale, across the organization, on a sustained basis. We need leadership that is able to help organizations leverage the competitive advantage wrought by change, disruption, uncertainty, complexity and chaos.
There really isn’t a job description that fits that bill (although I do have to say that I find the idea of a VP of Chaos incredibly appealing). The closest you might come would be the executive that houses or delivers strategic projects. And for those of you who just started thinking about project management offices, I’m not sure that they are the answer either. Far too many PMOs are focussed on their own efforts of entrenchment and repetition, seeking standardization and compliance to processes, templates and guidelines. Far too few PMOs are actually out in front of the organization helping to lead dynamic change. Although a far greater number of PMOs would arguably be seen to be providing a whole lot more value if they did.
One of the thoughts I was having as I reflected on the increasing ossification of the traditional org chart is that it used to be not-unheard-of to have a VP of Special Projects. At the same time, unfortunately, it was also not-unheard-of (in fact it was common to the point of predictable) for the VP of Special Projects to be the final resting ground of executives on their way out the door. It was the title of last resort, where underachieving executives awaited retirement or an enticing settlement package.
What organizations need now, most of all, is possibly something like a VP of Special Projects. Not as a comfortable sinecure, but as a source of leadership in driving innovation, change and disruption. We need strategy to be a living breathing thing, we need change to be a vibrant reality and we need innovation to be a broadly held capability. An executive focussed on challenging the status quo (starting with the org chart) would be an awesome thing in more than a few organizations that I can think of.
Leading change on this scale would be politically tricky, of course. But that is highly revealing in itself, because the challenge is rooted in the threat to the status quo and the risks this kind of change holds for well entrenched interests. That resistance starts with—and is reinforced by—the power and political influence embedded in our current organizational structures, in all their inflexible and unbending glory. The thing we are trying to change is the thing that will most firmly oppose and resist that change.
Organizations struggle with change. They have struggled with change for decades. And the primary reason that change efforts flail is far less about change being hard than it is about current structures serving the interests of a powerful few. The structure is getting in the way of changing the structure. And if we want organizations to change, then we need to change organizations.
A VP of Chaos might be an awesome place to start