Why On-Boarding Fails

The case

Valerie is the new VP of Product Management. Her references are impeccable. To ensure her success in the new role, Valerie was assigned an on-boarding consultant who worked with Valerie on her entrance strategy and supporting tactics.

After one year in the firm, Valerie left the company in the first dramatic failure of her career. The Head of R&D had cut her out of all strategic decisions and the Office of Project Management cut her out of the tactics.

Valerie was caught in a power struggle at the top and was knocked off in cross fire.

What’s the moral of this story?

We all remember Aesop’s Fables, don’t we? All stories need a moral!

On-boarding activity is often aimed and tailored for the individual. This is a strategic error. On-boarding especially at senior levels is not only a skill or get-used-to-the-culture issue. A critical success factor of senior on-boarding is often a system change, which pre and post on-boarding process need to address. 

We have all seen senior management recruiting Superman to solve a system problem, hoping for a quick fix or someone to hang. In the case above, Valerie was thrown into the fray to address the systemic power imbalance between R&D, Project Management and Product Management. 

A proper on-boarding intervention would have to be aimed at Valerie and her warring colleagues, with the active participation of the CEO.

Simplistic on-boarding aimed at the individual fail; on-boarding must be a system intervention. If the on-boarding is aimed for the “fresh meat” as an individual,  on-boarding efforts become what the Chinese call “对牛弹琴” or playing the piano to the cow“, IE, an exercise in futility.

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Addressing Lack of Ownership via OD

I cannot count the number of times that clients have contacted me because “we have a problem of ownership”. Typically a crisis with clients or suppliers triggers a compelling event which launches an OD project to enhance ownership.
Just last month, a CEO called me in because a very strategic supplier had refused a huge contract because “it takes 6 months and 200 emails to get paid, and no one seems to own paying us”.
Dealing with ownership issues effectively necessitates a very accurate diagnosis, in order to prevent the solution from turning into just another engagement plan.
In this short post, I want to share what I have found to be the root cause of “lack of ownership”.

1) ERP has been implemented brainlessly, eliminating common sense and closing all by-passes. This is by far the most common reason behind lack of ownership.
2) Irrational and non-achievable commitments have been made, and as a result, no one wants to be stuck with the dirty end of the stick, guilty of non-delivery.
3) There is an overemphasis (NOT an under-emphasis) on role clarity. Many problems need to be jointly owned (eg by Development and Customer Service) and not arbitrarily pinned on someone who is powerless.
4) Recent downsizing almost always drives a collapse of ownership. This is almost always incurable in the short term.
5) Too much data can cause a lack of ownership! For each slide and for every chart showing lack of ownership and poor responsiveness, employees learn to hide even better to make the charts look betters. (Eg, call centers which answer the phone within 2 seconds and cut off the call).

Enhancing ownership means addressing these issues at their core. It is root canal work, not a mere filling. Here are 3 tips on how to be effective in such projects.
1) Make sure that your project has a clear owner, because often the ownership of the OD project replicates the ownership problem of the organization.
2) Work from the micro to the macro. Start with delving into cases, not studying charts.
3) Get lots of input from the front line. Speak to the soldiers much more than the generals.
4) Learn the IT system and its constraints.

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