Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Zig Zag Theory of Organization

To be honest, I am not sure where the zig zag theory of organizations originated, but I do know that I have heard about it most of my professional work life, and I have been in enough settings, both large and small over the past 40+ years to know that there is much truth to the concept.

In case you are not familiar with the concept, it is pretty straight forward.  The theory essentially says that when the pressure from the organization below the "head" becomes so great in its momentum in a given direction that the "head" has no choice but to follow.

If you have been following the events in several of the countries in the Middle East of late, which has been pretty much unavoidable, you have seen this theory in action (both literally and figuratively).

But this happens in business as well and there are probably plenty of us who have seen it happen time and time again, and depending on one one's point of view, in some cases it can be a sad thing to see unfold and in others we just smile and are glad to see someone "get theirs."

The business section of your local paper probably has examples, big and small, almost every day.  Maybe one of the most prominent recently was when Yahoo's board pulled the plug on Carol Bartz.

Ask most anyone who has ever made the move from individual contributor to supervisor, manager, department head, division head, unit head, or any C-level role and most, I think, would tell you that delegation is one of the hardest bridges to cross and without doubt one of the most critical of leadership skills to master if one is to succeed. 

Giving up the control of doing it yourself to depending on others to do it while you are held accountable for the outcome for  most people is scary and uncomfortable.

In politics, "the organization" delivers their message at the ballot box as we all know.  In business, however, it is often much more subtle, but more often than not when those who are led are fed up with those who think managing is more about "telling" than "asking" or who somehow believe that a leader is someone who comes across as a "don't do as I do, do as I say" type what might have started as an enthusiastic "I'm on it" over time morphs into what I have best heard described as malicious obedience. It's a very apt description and a leader's worst nightmare.

Translation: It is people doing exactly what they have been asked to do, nothing more and nothing less.  In other words exercising no judgement that might value add or providing information that would help avoid a problem, etc., and when the inevitable happens and the boss is screaming how could this happen, the answer comes back as "...that's what you told us to do."

So, while it is a long way from being a "new" or "novel" message, those leaders, irrespective of sector (public or private) should keep this theory very much in mind as they interact with their those they lead, be they voters, employees or as we have seen in the Middle East - citizens.

At the end of the day, as they say, you serve at their pleasure.