My friend and client Doug is one of those rare crossbreeds of seasoned entrepreneur and capable big-company operator. A mathematician by training, he spent 18 years with a small company moving from engineering to sales, then joined a start-up that grew 40% per year for seven years before selling to Raytheon. An acquisition or two later and he found himself in a senior role at one the largest engineering companies – and one of the largest companies period – in the world.
He knows how to help you make things happen, whether you are an engineer, a start-up entrepreneur, or an ambitious “intrapreneur” pulling levers from inside a goliath organization.
Now, I know you don’t need to look back too far to find a time when you were frustrated by your organization’s bureaucracy. You may be feeling that right now.
But frustration stems, as Buddhists argue, simply from finding yourself in a situation in which what you expect is different from what happens. You are frustrated because you have a great idea and you expected your company to make a sensible decision, to see the brilliance in what you are proposing.
Now if that frustration only happens a few times a year, then maybe your expectations are well placed. But I am willing to bet that your frustration raises its heated head more often than that.
That is a problem, because, as Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa said, “It is hardly possible to build anything if frustration, bitterness and a mood of helplessness prevail.” When you are frustrated, you freeze because you are refusing to accept reality, so you stop acting or at least slow down.
Great athletes don’t let their frustration last more than a few moments while in the game. Neither should you.
Doug doesn’t get overly frustrated because he expects his company to “make decisions like a teenager.” Let’s say your teenager asks for a car. He is not thinking through whether he should have a car or not. He is not worried about the risk of accidents, the cost, or the fact that you, as his parent, are already willing to drive him wherever he wants. He just wants a car and will say anything, make any argument to get it.
Your bureaucracy behaves similarly. Let’s say someone wants not a new car but funding for a new project. That person is not necessarily worried about whether the project is the best investment for the company. They, consciously or unconsciously, are more motivated by the potential career benefits that would come from getting the funding. And, like a teenager, are willing say anything to get what they want.
This is not to say they will necessarily lie, but they will make the arguments that they know will convince those with power to give them approval. And that leads us to the real problem of most large, layered bureaucracies.
You see, having someone passionately committed to a cause, willing to fight for it, is not a bad thing, as long as there is someone there to play devil’s advocate and test the advocate’s thinking. For an organization to make good decisions, they must have good debates. Imagine what would happen to the legal system if there were no opposing side, to democracy if we had only one party, or to the advancement of science if researchers didn’t have to put up with tough, objective peer reviews. We’d end up with bad laws, governance, and science.
When I worked at McKinsey, we were taught we had “the obligation to dissent.” Even if you were a junior consultant, if you thought the senior partner was wrong, you were expected to argue against them. In Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater hedge fund, associates are encouraged to speak objectively and, many would say, with brutal honesty, about the faults of others’ decisions. Companies whose livelihoods depend on making great decisions – like McKinsey and Bridgewater – actively encourage, through strong cultural values, a system that vets ideas through the pressure of debate.
But few companies debate.
Most companies have created a system that discourages the devil’s advocate. People with proposals put them on PowerPoint slides. Since PowerPoint encourages you to share just the essential information, people have learned to share the information that is most compelling for their cases, according to Doug. For example, if there are three reasons why your proposal is a good one and one reason it is not, you often find the advocate only makes room on his PowerPoint for the three good points. To make matters worse, people with proposals know that their bosses also, consciously or unconsciously, care about advancing their own careers more than about the pros and cons of an idea.
This creates a dysfunctional system. We have teenagers convincing other teenagers to let them get cars. They say, “If you let me get this car, your boss will have to give you a car too.” Bad decisions propagate upward, rising as long as they benefit the careers of the next level up, with few willing to serve as the honest gatekeeper.
Now, a CEO or organizational behavior expert might, upon seeing the dysfunction, decide to do something about it. But Doug didn’t sign up to transform his company’s culture or be the head “parent” in a house full of teenagers. He is motivated as an intrapreneur to pursue cool projects that benefit his company over the long-term. He wants to leverage his company’s scale and resources to make great things happen.
Understanding the dynamic that defines how decisions are made in large companies, he has learned how to work with the system rather than sit frozen in frustration.
Lao Tzu, the Taoist philosopher, wrote, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality.” This perspective is one that you will find among many successful intrapreneurs. Like Doug, you accept the reality that your bureaucracy decides like a teenager, then work with that reality to make happen what you know is best for your company.