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🔫 "Kill" Your Organization 🔫
🤢 Or Swallow the Hairball? 🤢
“Status quo, you know, is Latin for 'the mess we're in.'” -Ronald Reagan
As a child, I despised Apple.
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I have no idea why; Steve Jobs never did anything to me. But I grew up in a PC Family, and something about the devotion of those who used Apple computers rubbed me the wrong way.
Eventually, I converted.
I have owned MacBook Pros for the previous 13 years (and am unlikely to switch), and that’s before you factor in my iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and AirPods.
Interestingly, my Apple conversion corresponded to the worst decade in Microsoft’s history, a good reminder that social trends drive many decisions, instead of our brilliance.
Today, both Microsoft and Apple are thriving, and Microsoft has occasionally regained its status as the world’s most valuable company.
As someone who worked for legacy organizations my entire career, I love case studies like Microsoft’s because they are, to paraphrase Spinoza, as difficult as they are rare.In honor of the world's birthday, it’s time to learn about a powerful concept of separating organizations that write new chapters versus those that fade into oblivion.
Satya Nadella receives (deservedly) the lion’s share of the credit for turning Microsoft around.
Writing the forward to Nadella’s book, Bill Gates compares Microsoft’s turnaround to refreshing the screen of one’s browser, because “when you hit refresh on your browser, some of what’s on the page stays the same.”Organizational refreshes require a balance between keeping what’s great about the organization others built while making noticeable improvements.
Who knows, maybe Bill Gates once read Tradition and Change?
But Gates’ metaphor is similar to a concept called “refounding,” a word that means exactly what it sounds like. One can allow organizations to die slowly or “refound” them when faced with imminent demise. No one person can be credited with this concept, and the Oxford English Dictionary dates the first usage of the term “refound” to the early 1500s. A number of reasons explain why it is so difficult to “refound” an organization, but my favorite comes from Gordon MacKenzie, who, in recounting his years working as an artist for Hallmark Cards, describes mature organizations as akin to a giant hairball.
Yes, a hairball. Gross, but an incredible metaphor.
MacKenzie argues that a hairball is created when “two hairs unite,” and then are joined by another, another, and another, until before long, “this tangled impenetrable mass has begun to form.”And over time, “The gravitational pull a body exerts increases as the mass of the body increases.” Turning to organizations, MacKenzie argues that if you substitute the word “hair” for policy, procedure, committee, or system, you quickly see the parallels:
“Every policy is another hair for the Hairball. Hairs are never taken away, only added. Even frequent reorganizations have failed to remove hairs (people, sometimes, hairs, never.) Quite the contrary, each reorganization seems to add a whole new layer of hairs.”
Nodding glumly yet? Good, that’s what I’m here for.
MacKenzie describes with powerful simplicity how the same norms that used to be a part of the organization’s growth now become a part of the organization’s weakness, requiring a mindset shift of many stakeholders that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
Of course, the easiest way to untangle a hairball is not to try and untangle it, but to throw it away, or create a new hairball (i.e., start another organization.) However, for all of us, this is much easier said than done, and most of us must live in the real world where our task is to take organizations that matured over time and keep them relevant, by doing what MacKenzie calls “orbiting” the hairball, making an asset of the institutional gravity that keeps you from flying out into space while avoiding being sucked into a “different kind of nothingness.”
Hence, the power of the refounding mindset.
Of course, there is a danger to seeing refounding as meaningless corporate jargon,and truthfully, the number of Jewish organizations that were “refounded” and thrived beyond anyone’s imagination is small. Plus, many organizations try to claim they were reinvented, but no one outside a cloistered inner circle agrees.
Yes, it’s hard for a reason.
But what better time to imagine it’s possible?
Kill the Company
If refounding is so difficult, figuring out where to start is even harder. This is one of many reasons why I hope you’ll consider reading Lisa Bodell’s Kill the Company. Bodell’s approach starts with a simple visualization:
“Pretend that you work for your organization’s biggest competitor. Write a plan to kill your company.”
The power of Bodell’s book lies in its simplicity. The only way to successfully complete this activity is to force people to avoid Pollyanish assumptions and imagine the darkest possible future. But when one is willing to do that, they create the first seeds of the tools to come out the other side.
Bodell argues that “Only after you’ve killed your company will you be able to tap into the innovation that will transform it into a killer company.”The alternative is for your company to become a “zombie company”:
“You’re not going to literally kill the company, of course—not the one you dreamed up and built with your sweat, nor the one that you wanted to work for because you were a fan of its amazing products, nor the one you admired because you believed it provided an essential service. But the zombie company that it has become, the one infected by the twin viruses of negativity and complacency, the one populated by frustrated, worn-out employees, the one dragging its feet through the muck of processes, short-term metrics, and the status quo? That company needs to be destroyed.”
If you read the first issue of Moneyball Judaism, where we learned about the value of Gary Klein’s pre-mortem, you will likely see parallels between Klein and Bodell’s approaches. While key stakeholders are often willing to worry about a dark future, too few turn those worries into strategies.
But no matter which of these metaphors appeals to you most (refreshing the browser, orbiting the hairball, or killing the company), they all sow the seeds of a powerful mental discipline that leaders can learn over time.
The Big Think
What I Read This Week
The Bear Should Be Required Reading for Nonprofits: I started watching The Bear this summer and really enjoyed it. I especially enjoyed this analysis of what lessons we can learn from it.
Thriving After Failing: I love thinking about failure, and how people return after failure. This piece on the subject was fantastic.
Why Do People Prefer Online Services?: I won’t lie; for reasons unrelated to Jewish law, I cannot stand participating in or leading online services. But I might be in the minority.
The Surprising Origins of Our Obsession with Creativity: Do you love creativity? Me too? Do you understand creativity? Not sure I do, after reading this article.
The Last Time Always Happens Now: I love simple and powerful truths, so consider reading this article. In brief, while we always know when we are doing something for the first time, we rarely know when we are doing something for the last time. How would we change our actions if we approached more things as if they were our last time?
Since it is the Season of Repentance, it’s unclear to me if I had something against Apple or something against people who loved Apple (or one specific person, to be precise.) I’m not proud of this, but I’m human.
I refuse to buy an Apple Vision Pro, and I don’t understand the Apple Pencil. But you never know…
I’m willing to bet a large sum of money that he did not…
For those who are involved in synagogues…
The good news is that Gerald Arbuckle wrote a powerful book on the need for congregations to be “refounded” in a great time of religious change.
The bad news is that he wrote it in 1988.
Add this to my list of reasons why we must stop paying attention to people who blindly say that “congregations are done.” It’s the ever-dying institution…
It may simply be the case that, for various reasons, synagogues are the most resilient of Jewish institutions. Unlikely to change dramatically, but also unlikely to disappear just because someone says they will.
Hillel, BBYO, The Jewish Education Project, and Bnai Jeshurun are great examples, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
A good rule of thumb: Your organization has not been reinvented unless someone completely disconnected from its success or failure says that it was.