Blog Archive

If you Google ‘HANA, you get more than 142.000.000 hits. Obviously, SAP is betting it’s future on the success of ‘SAP HANA’. The number of Google hits for a particular topic does not necessarily indicate the intrinsic value of it. It only indicates the hype.

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A couple of months ago, the New York Police Department (NYPD) fell victim to a hashtag hijack. Combining law enforcement with a good public image isn’t always easy in a city like New York. That is why the NYPD launched a Twitter campaign as an attempt to boost their public image. In their tweet, they encouraged people to post pictures of themselves with a member of the NYPD and the hashtag #myNYPD. They hoped to get overloaded with pictures of smiling citizens and friendly cops.

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Here’s a bold statement for you: there’s nothing unique about your strategy. Sorry.

As consultants on strategy clarification, we take deep-dives into the strategies of different companies in different industries. And very often (almost always), we encounter the same or very similar strategic objectives. Most companies and IT departments want to 1) become more agile, 2) get closer to the business, and 3) do something with Big Data. The wording may change but the meaning stays the same.

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Do you want to be more influential? Of course you do. Everybody wants to have an effect on how others think, feel and act. If you are committed to an outcome or result, influence is something you’re interested in.

The only problem is that being influential doesn’t come naturally. In fact, you’ve probably had some experiences that started out as an attempt at influencing others that quickly turned into manipulation. The only result left was nothing but a bad taste in everyone’s mouth; to say nothing of not getting the desired result.

Better results with a small BIG

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As consultants, we regularly support our customers in their strategy review process. We are wholehearted advocates of this kind of initiative. Not because it gives us a nice opportunity to reconnect with the customer or because it might serve as a ramp-up to a new project. No it is more a matter of organizational hygiene: in today’s dynamic, interconnected and pretty unpredictable world, it is important that companies stay in tune with the industry they operate in. If organizations don’t, they become irrelevant sooner or later. And since we are genuinely committed to our customers’ successes, reviewing the plan is something we enthusiastically support.

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When we think about innovation, we always tend to look to the future. It’s about …

  • new technologies,
  • things that were not possible before,
  • smartphones, tablets, self-driving cars, the Internet-of-Things, …

True, innovation is all that. But it is more than that. Looking back at how things were done before, gives interesting new insights and this fuels innovation too. That’s what artistic entrepreneur Sigiswald Kuijken has done throughout his 40+ year-long career.

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We all know by now that a bare hierarchical structure is not necessarily a well-oiled organization. We all know that; but when we reorganize what we are doing in fact, nine times out of ten, is to simply jumble things around. An organization is more than the organization charts, boxes, dotted lines, job descriptions and matrices can possibly depict. The real organization is the informal organization: the company behind the chart. What really matters are the networks, working relationships and trust. It’s all about relationships and trust.

Hierarchies and networks

What I still see in many of today’s large organizations are power hierarchies, often steep and inefficient. What I also see is that these structures are not working anymore. Power leads to abuse of authority and corruption. Power also provokes poor decision-making. The opinion of the top bosses is overrated and people are afraid (within that hierarchy) to let their voice be heard.

Does that mean that we should abolish hierarchies? Of course not. But management merely based on hierarchies is out of kilter with the modern world.

What John P. Kotter (a New York Times best-selling author and Harvard Professor) proposes is a dual operating model, consisting of a hierarchy to exploit the running operations and one (or more) (temporary) networks to seek new opportunities. (Read his blog “Hierarchy and Network: Two Structures, One Organization”.)

The Wolf of Wall Street

Hierarchy and network? Is that enough to make a company work? I do not think so. Two structures, a hierarchy and a network, combined into one organization, is no guarantee that it’s all going to work …

In fact: many companies have (very) bad managers and the relationships in many of these companies are sick. People say that a fish rots from the head down. So let’s look at the heads of an average company – its leadership. Many chief executives tend to be dominant, male, selfish, overconfident people. All those characteristics don’t help foster better decisions, fairness, collaboration and a trustful workplace.

Of course I am exaggerating a bit (and I hope I won’t offend some of the (male) readers). But anyone who has seen `The Wolf of Wall Street’ (a film by Martin Scorsese) will know what I am talking about. (Watch this funny humming scene!)

Trust matters

One of the reasons that we had such an enormous economic crisis was that we all together created a system focused on short-term benefits, where moral values almost disappeared. No bank could trust another. Trust went out the window.

No society, economy, family or organization can function well without (a small quantity) of trust. And yes, selfishness inevitably diminishes trust.

Lessons from ants

We should organize modern companies as ant colonies.

Ant colonies have hierarchy (although the queen has no power or control over the other ants!). The nest is highly structured, as it provides corridors within itself for transporting food and eggs throughout the many areas of the nest.

They also have a network of workers and soldiers. Worker ants and soldier ants perform various tasks in the nest. Each ant has a specific role to play within the ant community. No matter what job is assigned, each ant plays a vital role in maintaining or building the colony.

Of all animals, ant colonies have the highest level of organization: cooperative nest-building and brood care, generational overlap, which is to say, parents and offspring live together inside the nest and clear division of labor, segregated into castes.

Unlike other creatures (including human beings I am afraid), ants live and work in harmony with one another for the greater good of the ant community. Trust reigns supreme in the ants’ colony. Ants are unselfish; they do not work for their personal benefit but to benefit the colony as a whole.

Ant societies are perfectly organized! There is hierarchy, structure, network and trust!  They have division of labor, communication between individuals and an ability to solve complex problems. Together they can achieve fantastic things! I found a brilliant BBC clip on how many little ants work together to attack a huge crab!

Unfortunately, human creatures are not ants. First of all, in most organizations led by humans the boss is no female (unlike ants where the queen is top of the tree). Second, human beings are weird creatures. And that makes trust a tricky thing. It is in human nature to be a bit selfish. Everyone possesses self-interest in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! But self-interest “properly understood” (as with the ants) is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest—in other words, the common welfare—is, in fact, a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being.

Rebuilding trust

Whatever the model of your company (a more traditional hierarchy or a network … or both), what matters most is (working) relationships and trust. And yes, as I’ve said already, developing trust is a tricky business. But that doesn’t mean we should stop striving for a bit more trust in our society and our economy. Trust is what makes contracts, plans and everyday transactions possible.

I suspect there is only one way to really fix the relationships in a company and to get trust back. We should, above all, choose the right leaders: women and men of absolute integrity, passionate, competent, honest, reliable and embodying norms of good behavior.

Good leaders cultivate trust and good working relationships. As the saying goes: you reap what you sow. Trust breeds trust. Nothing else comes close to being as important.


Picture of Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese) found on Youtube

Illustration of an ant network, found on the website of Fewell Lab at Arizona State University


Author: Chantal Van de Ginste. You can follow Chantal on Twitter (@CvdGinste) or connect with her on LinkedIn

Hierarchy has not had its day. Despite what management gurus are proclaiming these days. In theory they are right, I guess. But you know the saying:  “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” Hierarchy (and job titles as well as status and the ranking that comes with it) is just part of human nature.

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