A Framework for Success in the Real World

April 23, 2012

By Michael B. Tatham, President, The Tatham Group 

The best kind of change initiative at any level is one that is not formally announced and occurs covertly.  I learned this from my father.  And, as usual, the message was presented in a manner that made me work to understand the lesson.

It was the middle of the summer and I had just graduated from The University of Toronto with an Honors Bachelor of Arts.  Currently employed in a ‘stepping stone’ job I was contemplating my career path.  I decided that my best option to set me up for success was to build all of the skills and tools I needed for the business world by getting my MBA.  Walking into my dad’s office with a couple of cold beers and my best sales pitch in hand I was confident I would walk out with the funding.

After patiently listening to my reasons for spending a few hundred thousand dollars to learn an MBA business framework he took a slow sip of his beer and smiled.  Without saying a word he handed me a thick folder labeled resumes. Then went back to his computer to work.  Clearly the only answer I was getting was within the folder.

The contents were an interesting collection of magazine and newspaper articles and letters from past clients dating back as far as the early 70’s.  The article on top was from Fortune in 1993.  It was about reengineering and quoted many experts and consulting firms with the strongest being: “Reengineering is so hot that the label is being slapped on everything from requests for new chairs to across the board layoffs.”  The other articles focused on the TQM movement.  Often the articles outlining the reasons for its failure were written by the same experts that touted it as an organizational savior.  So why were these intelligent people and organizations changing their tune?

I turned to the client letters to find the answer.  Each was focused on the development of a ‘quality’ culture.  The leaders writing the letters were pleasantly surprised to be experiencing the change and while thanking Tatham for the guidance were simultaneously asking ‘how’d this happen?’

There was a theme emerging.  The companies who had tried to apply a cookie cutter quality framework in the articles had a client letter to The Tatham Group (then Tatham Process Engineering).  Dad had been collecting the articles as resumes for new clients! A strategy that proved fruitful.

Having discovered the purpose of the folder I headed back to his office and asked, “How did you know that these companies would be open to buying your approach to change?”  His answer: “People, companies and consultants all love to ride the hot label of the day.  They will announce it, build a structure to support it and develop resources to maintain the trend.  It will either morph into something completely different or fail.  Once they’ve tried it the standard way I know they will be open to trying something different.  They’ll be ready to take the risk on something unconventional.”

He then went on to explain one of the foundations of our business and reasons it has not faded out with the times.  The best kind of change initiative at any level is one that is not formally announced and occurs covertly.  Besides conflicting popular opinion on change management, what does that mean?

  1. Don’t broadcast that a new change initiative is about to start.
  2. Change the mindset of the people at all levels not just the structure.
  3. Give the front line people (the troops) tools to pull on that are easy to use, appeal to common sense and are dynamic enough to produce results even when the environment changes.
  4. Stop chasing best practices or industry standards.  If you do look to others learn from their failures not their successes.  Build something unique to your organization that fits the specific needs, culture and goals that aren’t (or shouldn’t be) the same as others.
  5. Let it evolve naturally through experience, celebration of failure and the right level of conflict to produce something better than theorized. Be comfortable not knowing what the framework will look like in the end or if there will ever be an end to its creation.

Tatham’s System helped them discover their own framework for quality.  And the key to success was pride of authorship, building off what works and encouraging leaders to release the creativity already within the organization instead of insulting the intelligence of the employees by asking them to replicate the work of others.

Similar to the organizations in the folder, my father taught me that it’s not the leader with the fanciest titles, most letters following their names, who announce themselves by applying their theories to build frameworks for today that are the most successful.  It’s the ones who are adaptive, creative, who quietly develop a structure organically through experimenting, failing and adjusting that win.  Their business systems remain agile and one step ahead of the organization so people can grow into them instead of out of them.

I recently read an article that talked about the lack of diversity in leadership teams and consulting firms.  The focus wasn’t on the usual suspects for diversity discussions – gender, age, race, etc.  Rather it was on the lack of diversity of thinking – MBA clones.  Conspicuously missing are the artistic and creative minds.  The balance needed to keep fresh ideas flowing, creative tension, innovative and imaginative thinking.  I would never have predicted that my English and Fine Arts degree would be considered a competitive advantage over a MBA in the business world.  Guess that was money well saved.