In an earlier life, as a marketing executive at a large lending institution, I was given the opportunity to join the company’s strategic leadership team. Because of some recent, significant organizational changes, we had many critical issues to confront. Were we pursuing the appropriate competitive strategy for a newly identified target market? How would emerging technologies alter the business environment for various stakeholders? How should we deal with the declining morale among our employees that was resulting from the company’s revolutionary changes? I was excited to be part of the group that would tackle these questions. You can imagine my amazement, therefore, when at my first meeting with the leadership team the discussion began with whether we should install a whiteboard in a particular conference room. From there, we moved on to the critical problem of whether corporate office personnel could wear denim. As part of that exchange, someone asked if chambray was considered denim. That’s where I lost it.
Before you cast any stones, let me make clear that this was, in most ways, likely the best-managed organization with which I have been associated. This raises the obvious question: Why do otherwise competent executives so easily gravitate to technical, tactical and practical problems rather than addressing broader questions with the potential for far greater impact? There are two primary reasons.
First, let’s admit it — the practical stuff is much easier. One can easily weigh the trade-offs, make a decision with reasoned finality and move swiftly to implementation. As human beings, we seek the satisfaction this problem-solving progression certainly brings.
Of greater concern, though, is the fact that some organizational decision makers simply have not acquired and/or developed the conceptual skills needed to operate as leaders in a world filled with ambiguity. Those who, like me, teach in business schools shoulder some of the responsibility. We too often teach business disciplines as stand-alone subject matter, offering only a single capstone course to bring in the big picture. In so doing, we frequently turn out students who are technically advanced but lack more abstract thinking ability.
Organizations themselves must also share the blame. There was a time when technically savvy students would garner the conceptual proficiency they needed as they rose through the traditional organizational structure. They started as assistant managers, then became small-branch managers, then managers at larger branches. If they performed well, they were promoted to district, regional and divisional offices.