Most of us bemoan jargon and management-speak. But we all use it and for good reason. It provides us with a fast, short-hand way to debate important issues. I stumbled on a useful new term during a trip on a trip to Poland last week and then noticed it again today in an HBR blog. “Learned helplessness”, borrowed from animal psychology and re-purposed for management use, refers to that organisational malaise where we all declare that things are impossible because of ‘the rules’. We feel constrained, unable to innovate or help customers out of an unusual problem because regulations, internal polices and other unwritten rules prevent us from acting. Powerful, able, intelligent, qualified people are sometimes unable to take the simplest and most rational of actions because of the weight of this perceived control envelope. When multiplied across the organisation this behaviour can be performance crippling.
So what’s the antidote? Well clearly, someone needs to regularly take an axe to those ‘rules’. Many of them will be out of date, some will actually turn out to be non-existent. Organisations accrete rules over time. Often they are passed from one generation of managers to another without ever being retested or evaluated. Sometimes their origins are lost in the mists of time and there may be nobody left in the organisation who can explain the original rationale. But who should be the person to challenge and chop away the detritus?
The IT function is sometimes caricatured and derided for its relative lack of creativity, social insight or aesthetic ability but it is rarely criticised for is its logical and analytical ability. That ability, properly applied can be a powerful antidote to an organisation’s learned helplessness. IT business analysts are the kind of people who use simple logical techniques like 5-whys, to get right to the root of such problems. By questioning what’s behind something, in order to build only robust and valuable process logic into business applications – they can often reveal untruths that have been inhibiting better organisational performance for years. They apply cold logic and in doing so, often shine a light on those situations where “because we always did it that way” is not sufficient reason for perpetuating one of those rules that make us helpless.
So CIOs can make a difference to this problem, if they are robust in supporting an IT culture in which their staff are encouraged to probe and test business logic at every turn. Conversely, an IT function that is unquestioning, could actually exacerbate the problem. A servile, order taker culture will merely reinforce and codify unjustifiable business rules. You could embed irrational and outdated business thinking deeply in software where it is even less open to future inspection and challenge. Or you could meekly implement business application packages that contain lots of rules that are irrelevant to your business circumstances – either in the name of expediency or an unquestioning belief that the software embodies external ‘best practices’.
A powerful, professional IT function can be a countervailing force that continuously clears out the irrational ‘rules’ that incubate learned helplessness – but only if the CIO sets it on that mission.
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