Surviving Corporate Dodge Ball


I have to admit that I love to people watch. Working in one of the busiest corporate centers in the US allows me this luxury. As I sit and watch the bustling individuals in mostly business casual, I can’t help but think of the Chicago Bulls on the court warming up for a game. The heavy breathing, stern and focused looks, constant movement back and forth, some are even covered in sweat and the game hasn’t even started. I’ve felt the same way before walking into work. The minute we hit the court disguised as our office our senses are alert. We immediately start to dodge, duck, dip and even dive for cover. We usually have to take some hits though and the hairiest part of the game is when we finally get to our desk and we open our emails. This is really when the balls start flying and the showdown begins. The opposing team being the executive branch.

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We have a hero fetish: Why the war of the “strong” against the “weak”? As a society we love to see who is the weakest and who is the strongest. We have a hero fetish. We want a hero and we crave a victor! Not only do we desire a hero but rankings are rampant in our society and this concept infiltrates our organizational systems that constantly clash. We need to know who is rich and who is poor… and be sure to distinguish yourself as such. Who is smart and who is dumb? Who is the executive and who is the peon? The conflict between managers and non-managers is linked to our societal customs that dictate the need for status checks and labels. The “I am this so I can only do this” mentality simply does not work any more.

Who is right…the peon or the executive? When problems, issues and conflict arise who is to blame? Incompetence is often assumed on both sides when we should be evaluating the system before evaluating competence levels and the people problems. Is society filled with competent people in a flawed system or are we incompetent people in a perfect system?

Management Behaviors

  • Stand on your own two feet
  • Your value is based on how much you contribute, contribute, contribute
  • Slow to expose and fix issues
  • Gauge hiring on what can be extracted from individuals

Peon Behaviors

  • Do as little as possible to get by
  • Become a workaholic
  • Hastily identify things and package them as issues without offering solutions
  • Gauge opportunities on what can be extracted for personal gain

A closer look at the system and its power to innovate…

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Issues exist and innovation is the key to solving them. In many organizations innovation happens at the top and rarely finds it’s way to the bottom where it’s needed. Yet so called innovative solutions are handed down. What happens next is that issues in execution reveal the complexity of the problem and in many cases the inaccuracy of the innovative solution. True innovation cannot find its way because there is a disconnect between REAL innovation and a real grasp of what the issues are. In this scenario balls are being launched out of frustration on both sides. The wheels of execution are spinning but little to no change is actually being made.

There were many suggestions. Nearly all began with the call for a new kind of leadership. Umesh Gupta stated, “Innovation … is directly proportional to the attitude of senior management.” Ginny Wiedower commented, “Without a corporate strategy to reach defined corporate goals, innovation will be misdirected and unguided.” But D. R. Elliott pointed out that “innovations and inefficiencies are persistent anomalies in organizations.” Actions of top managers, according to Marc Sniukas, should “set the context; guide the process …; clearly communicate reasons …; shield creative teams …; appreciate distinctiveness in people and their thinking; and welcome change.” As Dan Hoch put it, “… the real question revolves not around whether the managers have the courage, but does the CEO have the vision and fortitude to stand before the board and defend the opportunity to explore and fail?” – James Heskett: Baker Foundation Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School.

Surviving the game…

  • Make changes within subsystems
  • Infiltrate the engrained layers of the system
  • Burst the illusion that progress is instantaneous
  • Principles of execution must be taught, consistent and supported
  • Focus less on the roles and more on the work to be done
  • Recognize that there is always a people problem
  • Push for effective internal communication
  • Stay connected to your organizations momentum
  • Address system structures before competence

One Reply to “Surviving Corporate Dodge Ball”

  1. “Is society filled with competent people in a flawed system or are we incompetent people in a perfect system?” – So where do you come out on your question? I tend to favor the notion that people are generally competent (think of the project management skills of even the average parent) but that elements of current organizational systems limit their ability to succeed. That also means that there is at least the possibility that the people you’ve got are capable enough to do the necessary work if you can tweak the systems enough to enable them rather than squelch them.

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