If you work in a big enterprise, you will undoubtedly find yourself frustrated with the lack of agility in moments that would seem to demand immediate course corrections.  Although a measured response is often appropriate, what elements in the culture and structure of corporate and government behemoths prevent quick and decisive action when it is clearly needed?

“Big” is certainly not homogeneous in this regard and generalizations are seldom accurate predictors, but perhaps there really are common “genetic” patterns that express themselves in ways leading to slower responses to both opportunities and threats.  Here are some I think may be responsible.  Some are complementary, while others are not.  Some are good, but not in excess or in isolation.

Risk Management Mindset

Big enterprises either are very good at managing risk, or they want to be.  Risk seems to be at the root of almost every conversation.  What is the risk-reward ratio of action versus inaction?  This can result in what the CEO of a small tech company recently described to me as the “fight club” mentality.  Imagine a possible security breach… if the cost of suffering a breach costs less than instituting changes to re-mediate the vulnerability, then they will take it on the chin and endure the breach.  He went on to say:  “Ironically, that deliberation takes time and only exacerbates the compromise resulting in a much more elaborate fix.”

Certainly there are vulnerabilities that are very costly to fix, but in many cases the risk-reward ratio is not so clearly biased in one direction or the other.  Even fixing a vulnerability will pose operational risks of varying degrees.  All change has inherent risk.  If the risks of taking action become amplified, inertia will win — until inaction becomes clearly untenable leading to the more “elaborate fix.”  And… more costly in the end.

Risk management is a good and necessary part of big enterprises at many levels, but it is still necessary to remain committed to time-tested principles often a balance is needed between risk aversion and commitment to principles.  Proactively limiting attack surface helps to minimize the “thrust and parry” patterns that result in constant escalations.  Doing this at low cost when the threat seems small or unclear can

Lack of Empowerment

Employees often do not feel that they can actually affect change.  It may not actually be the case, or it may be that the hierarchical structures in place tend to over emphasize or naturally validate input from some while minimizing it from others.  Sometimes those in elevated positions are less willing to take a chance on a new idea or a bold proposal.  Sometimes they’ve forgotten that this is exactly what they had to do to get where they are, but protecting that position makes them less willing to continue to do so.

Cultural Apathy

If a general lack of passion (often created by an attitude that everything is “someone else’s problem”) pervades an organization, then its ability to respond is slowed to a crawl.  Schisms and turf wars are everywhere.

 Isolation into Silos

Big enterprises tend to create deep silos that breed subject matter experts in one highly specialized area.  They can easily lose a “connect-the-dots” capability.  This type of isolation restricts conversation and the cross-pollination of ideas.  Vertical expertise without horizontal perspective limits the ability of organizations to identify and solve problems on a macro scale — those that require cross-disciplinary insight and skill.  If it takes great effort to organize a broad exchange of ideas, then an organization will be slow to respond to both emerging opportunities and threats that present themselves in more than one area or way simultaneously.

Solution Sprawl and Complexity

If an organization comes to believe over time that almost every solution has to involve a product or tool, then nearly every solution carries budgetary implications.  The introduction of new products and tools often adds unnecessarily to the overall complexity of the environment.  Product proliferation proceeds at an amazing speed.   Some enterprise architecture initiatives end up focusing heavily on product re-use.  Business silos contribute to this sprawl — each one procures similar but slightly different tools.  The sharing of expertise across the enterprise becomes an elusive goal.  The stroke of a pen from a CEO to pronounce a shared services model is not enough to undo years of practice.  Aside from the obvious inefficiencies, a lack of true oversight sets in.  It becomes difficult to guarantee that a suggested or planned change will not have unintended consequences.  A bias toward accepting or transferring risk rather than mitigation will tend to drive decisions in very complex environments.

However, sometimes solutions really are simple and elegant.  Sometimes they don’t involve purchasing something, but just using what you have.  Sometimes all that is needed to find a good solution is imagination and a willingness to look at a problem from another perspective.

Conclusions

Every organization aspires to be agile.  Some achieve it, others attempt to buy it (thus the dizzying pace of M&A activity), and others never get there.  Agility for the sake of agility is a likely formula for less than desirable outcomes.  Instead, imagination, courage and vision fused with commitment to real achievement can result in enterprises that are well able to meet difficult challenges in fast-moving markets or economic downturns.  If a large enterprise recognizes where the “water line” is for their “boat” and then encourages innovation above it while protecting what is below, they may achieve a mix of the flexibility typically associated with smaller organizations and the predictability desired by many investors.

 

 

 

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