The first 10 years of my career were spent at IBM, a professional period of my life that did much to form the way I view sales, marketing, management and business in general. I’m still very influenced by all that I experienced and learned in those 10 years. As a low-level worker bee in that very large organization, I was always a bit puzzled at how frequently IBM reorganized itself. It seemed that every 18-24 months, a new organization was rolled out, requiring us to learn the new org chart, reporting structure and acronyms of the new divisions to which we reported. At the time, I didn’t understand why such frequent reorganization was necessary.
The last position I held before I left IBM in 1993 was Quality Manager for our trading area. I was part of the cultural change IBM was promoting to become more market driven by embracing the tenets of Total Quality Management (TQM). During this time, one of my peer Quality Managers gave me a copy of the Sam Walter Foss (1858 – 1911) poem; “The Calf Path” and I’ve kept a copy in a file in my desk since that day. It will take but a few minutes to click the link and read it.
The poem describes a calf that inadvertently blazed a path over which many blindly followed, never questioning if that path was expedient. Eventually, “the traffic of a continent” journeyed over the winding path, but no one questioned the way “for thus such reverence is lent to well-established precedent”.
Anyone who has battled the status quo will immediately relate to the poem. It is my nature to challenge traditions that don’t make sense, particularly when there is clearly a better way, but they persist simply because “that’s how we’ve always done it”. These are the sacred cows of tradition about which organizations and the people in them seem to have lost their objectivity. If you feel as I do, then you’re going to love this poem. If you think this poem is heresy, then don’t bother looking in your rear view mirror for your competitors – they’re probably already ahead of you.
Tradition has its place, and I am sentimental. Where I’m impatient is when I see organizations cling to old ways of doing things simply because they’ve always been done that way. This attitude causes an organization to atrophy, impairing its ability to improve, innovate and remain competitive. Essentially, it is a resistance to change, a leadership flaw born out of a combination of fear and laziness. I’m frustrated at this because it is a going-out-of-business strategy, and when I’ve been in organizations that have these sacred cows, it feels like being a passenger on the Titanic.
Now I understand why IBM reorganized itself so often. Efficiencies and advantages were gained from each reorganization, but I’m convinced the core reason was to keep the company off the path of the calf. Inevitably, companies are either forced to reinvent themselves because of market conditions, or they choose to do it proactively. IBM wisely chose the latter.
Here’s where impatience is a virtue, for patient types are satisfied with the status quo. Consider then, how much credit must go to the impatient for advancing progress. Although there is some dispute about the attribution, Mark Twain said that sacred cows make the best hamburgers. Who doesn’t like a barbecue? Fire up the grill…