Dropping the Crutches

by Krishna on March 8, 2007

Parents attach training wheels on bicycles for young children. This way, they can easily learn to ride and navigate without the fear that they will fall down and get injured. Similarly, children are given metal tumblers and plastic items instead of articles made of glass. Again, this protects them from harm.

In a business environment, such paternalism is a common occurrence. We evaluate risks and take precautions. Locks are put and passwords are enforced. Standards, guidelines and best practices are drawn up to avoid mistakes. Such measures also boast of other benefits like creating stability and avoiding confusion.

However, sometimes these crutches remain even though the circumstances (under which they were introduced) change. You wouldn’t have a teenager cycling around with training wheels, would you? But that is very similar to what many organizations do.

Here is an interesting parable on the subject:

Once upon a time, there was a holy man. One day, while he was meditating, his cat came around and troubled him. So the next time, before starting to pray, he tied the cat to a nearby tree. His disciples noticed this practice. After the death of the holy man, when they started meditating, they would duly find a cat and tie it to a tree.

Many organizational practices are like that — invented to solve a problem, but remaining long after the need has passed. The interesting part is that some of these practices could be easily corrected by a quick meeting or email, but because of inertia, people are more content to keep complaining instead of taking the time to correct the processes.

Sometimes the creator of the practice realizes that it is outdated, but neglects to modify the documented standard or inform other people in the organization. So while that person improves himself or herself, all others continue to be victims.

A possible solution is to have “sunset provisions” for all standards and processes. By this, I mean that every enforced process in the organization has an expiration date. Beyond that date, no one must use that process unless it has been re-examined and re-affirmed by key persons in the company. This can be a systematic method for getting rid of outdated processes.

Getting rid of old baggage can free up the organization to meet new challenges. It is amusing to see how different companies, like attics, accumulate all sorts of useless material.

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