Management nuggets: Box set or tailor-made?


Graeme Yell, Director at Hay Group talks ill-conceived Christmas presents and ill-conceived business strategies

Many years ago my little brother bought my Dad a box set (VHS!) of the A-Team as a Christmas present. It seemed a strange gift at the time: I couldn’t remember Dad leading the rush to the couch on Saturday evenings when Hannibal Smith and his merry men graced our screens. And strangely, my brother (still living at home those days) was a serious fan. So there seemed to me two possible conclusions to be drawn – either my brother was trying to educate Dad about the deeper meaning to be drawn from the capers of the renegade crack commando unit, or perhaps he was just hoping to watch more himself.

It’s a pattern of behaviour which I sometimes see comparisons to in organisations – and I don’t mean in terms of Secret Santa presents at the team Christmas lunch! 

Just a few days ago, I was discussing a new leadership development programme with a senior HR leader. She had already formulated a view on: 

•           Delivering a specific type of programme for a given population in the organisation

•           What the programme would entail, how long it would run for, and the types of content that would be included

•           Approximately how much it might cost, through talking to potential partners who could design and run it.

All of this sounds immensely positive: decisive leadership in HR; clear deliverables; a sense of purpose and a keen desire to get something done – until I asked her the purpose of the programme and what she was trying to deliver for the organisation. We looped back to the conversation about what she wanted to achieve in the programme but it became apparent that there wasn’t a direct link to the organisation’s objectives and the desired benefits were unclear.

It’s something I see frequently in organisations, often in functional areas such as IT, legal and everything in between. Leaders set out with good intentions to give their organisation an ‘A-Team box set’; whether in the form of new systems, development programmes, procedures and approaches, competency models and so on.

All of these have the power to be hugely positive and, indeed, transformational when done in the right way and for the right reasons. But an overwhelming desire for speed, low cost, simplicity and the desire to get things done often lead people to naturally assume that what has worked for them in the past will achieve the same results this time around. It stops them from thinking more broadly about what the organisation actually needs, where it is heading, the implications of this and the resultant objectives and benefits to be achieved by the initiative.

This isn’t, however, confined just to leaders and employees in specialist roles. Leaders of all types (think business, political, even sporting) often fall victim to the same phenomenon; the most common symptom is starting an activity for its own sake which ultimately ties up time, resources and money but delivers no wider benefit.

Back to ‘the A-Team’; I’m sure we’ve all given an ill-considered Christmas present before – I know I have. But as Christmas bears down on us with its usual cocktail of fun, festivities, family and cheesy music, hopefully there will be a bit of quiet time too. That may be a good moment to reflect on how we can all make a positive impact on our organisations in the New Year.