Friday, October 25

Yikes! Can Management's Rah-Rah Attitude Survive? 

In my book, Relish: The Highly Authorized Guide to the World of Business and Leadership, I wrote the following about wacky "rah-rah" training programs - this ties directly into the article copied in below from the October 2006 issue of Training magazine titled Yikes! Can Management's Rah-Rah Attitude Survive?:

From me:
Innovation Overload
Although I am a huge proponent of innovation and creativity in business, it can also be taken too far by irresponsible consultants (or clients).

There’s no such thing as “Drive-Thru” Creativity. This is about the future of your company. Building genuine innovative capabilities into your corporate culture is like building a new restaurant, not eating a Happy Meal. It’s a process, not an event.

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line between a healthy, creative, productive work atmosphere and a wacky one that’s just being different for the sake of difference?

Look at performance. Look at results. Take the temperature of the place. Are people frazzled and stressed out over the latest “flavor of the month” creative leadership technique? Are wacky methodologies being used with no explanation, buy-in or enthusiasm? Do people feel like they’re in the middle of a circus act? That’s when you’ve got a problem.

If a consultant or trainer defines creativity or innovative capability as any of the following:
* Brainstorming
* Ideation
* Problem-solving
* A way to have more fun at work
... run for the exits! That reeks of the “one-time Drive-Thru quick-fix” school of creativity and it trivializes the power of true creativity in business – the REAL deal – that is exemplified by companies like Disney, Starbucks, HP, Nike, Charles Schwab, Apple Computer, Procter & Gamble, Southwest Airlines, and many more. They take creativity seriously.

Here are three things NOT to do:
1. Start creative leadership and innovation “programs” in haphazard pockets of the organization with no central champion.
2. Read about “best practices” and try to clone another company’s culture and methods without a deeper context, strong executive buy-in, and a clear tie-in to specific, urgent business goals.
3. Hire a dogmatic organization that starts to change the language or starts to impose metaphors from the realms of the military, sports, dog training, or the space program (I’m not kidding.)

From Training:

Yikes! Can Management's Rah-Rah Attitude Survive?
By Jack Gordon

One of the most insightful essays ever written about American business culture, for my money, appeared not in any management journal, but in a less likely venue—the August 1986 issue of Playboy. Its author was novelist and former Esquire columnist Laurence Shames. Its title was "Yikes! Business Superstars!" Turns out I still have a yellowing photocopy in a file. Shames' subject was the sea change that had recently transformed and jazzed up the rhetoric of business.

"Businessmen and businesswomen are not gladiators," he wrote. "Nor are they conquistadors, ninjas, test pilots, Olympic pole vaulters or movie stars." That might seem elementary, he pointed out, but you would never know it from the look or contents of contemporary business magazines, management books or stage presentations.

The new rhetoric, Shames wrote, "sexualize[s] business by making it sound like a series of titillating, high-stakes gambles, a tightrope act performed without a net; when, in fact, as John Kenneth Galbraith asserted in his 1958 classic, The Affluent Society, 'modern business enterprise can be understood only as a comprehensive effort to reduce risk.' What is going on is a national campaign to kid ourselves into thinking that business is more dramatic, more heroic and just plain more interesting than it almost always is."

Why did the national denial campaign launch at that particular time? Why, in the 1980s, did accountants suddenly mistake themselves for astronauts and run around talking about having the right stuff? Shames saw what he called the "new business rah-rah" as a tragicomic echo of the 1960s:
"We boomers … always knew that a very special destiny awaited us. ...[W]e would live lives different from those that had been lived before. Except that it hasn't quite turned out that way, has it? Most of us have settled into lives exactly like those that have been lived before: lives in business in a culture that's about business. So now the mythology is undergoing an ingenious twist: Having largely given up our dreams of being unconventional, we must contrive to make the conventional itself appear exalted."

Mind you, Shames was writing seven years before the World Wide Web met the Mosaic browser, and graphics came to the Internet. There followed the dot.com boom that hyper-glamorized and cyber-sexualized business rhetoric, not to mention providing Generation X with its own sense of a special destiny and its own mythology of business as one big revolutionary thrill ride.

The rah-rah is still with us, of course. It was with us before the 1980s, too, though in less hyperbolic forms. We are receptive to narratives that make our work and lives sound more dramatic than they usually are, not because we're boomers or Xers or because we have the Internet, but because we're human. I wonder, though, if rah-rah has gotten harder to sell—especially in corporate classrooms, where trainers are pretty much duty-bound to make the generally hum-drum proposition sound as fascinating as possible.

Did the rah-rah take only glancing hits from Enron's collapse and the dot.com implosion? Or were those lasting body blows? Until the lid blew off, after all, Enron was the very poster child of revolutionary companies—breaking all the old rules, thinking outside the box, reinventing its industry. When talk turns to reinvention today, does Enron's ghost still haunt the room? Or are attention spans not that long?
Here's a more chilling thought. As executive compensation soared for 20 years while worker-bee salaries stagnated and collective bargaining was neutered, one purpose served by the rah-rah was to distract people from the fact that a handful of guys at the top were keeping all the money generated by all that reinvention. While clerks played guerilla-ninja-cyber-astronaut, CEOs played with stock options.

Today, with what's left of the middle class hanging on by its fingernails, do wage earners still buy the line that they're really gladiator test pilots?

Jack Gordon is the editor-at-large of Training. E-mail him at edit@trainingmag.com.

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