Problem Solving

What Really Drives You Nuts?

Kate Mercer asked:

common complaint we hear from leaders and managers is that they can’t do everything they want to do to produce results in their area of the business; they control only part of everything that needs to be managed to get the job done.

Most organisations are organised functionally into areas which seem to have a common purpose or goal, such as Sales, Marketing, Finance or Operations. But when you really look at organisations and the process of producing results, many chains of work tasks actually cut right across these functional boundaries.

Who is Accountable for the Whole Process?

For example, new Sales staff coming into a health care products organisation we work with receive induction and basic product training for their very complex range of products from a central training and development function headed by a development specialist. They arrive on the job with excellent high-level theoretical knowledge of their products and how the complex sales process works. They realise however, immediately they meet real customers and use the actual sales tools provided, that they know very little of how sales in the company really work on the ground. The development function can’t help – they are development specialists, not sales people. The experienced sales people in the company have the knowledge, but are not accountable for training new staff, and no-one has time allocated to do it.

The result? Frustration for all parties. The development department trainers get complaints despite doing a good job in good faith, the experienced sales people are frustrated at rookies arriving on the job unable to function effectively, and the new recruits flounder. No one person or department at the level in the company which is most affected by the issues is accountable for the whole process of producing a new recruit with all the information and skills he or she needs to do the job on day one.

Where Else is This Happening?

Take a look at your own job. Where do you experience the frustration of knowing you could produce better results if you only controlled the whole process from beginning to end, and could smooth out the bumps and gaps between your function and the buffering ones up and down the line? Some examples from our clients past and present include:

– A Director responsible for European sales of defence equipment whose job is made more difficult because of product specifications imposed by the US parent company on Europe and the rest of the world which do not take account of local needs and conditions

– A Senior Vice President of Customer Service and Sales obliged to increase prices to levels he knows his customers will not tolerate

– A Regional Sales Manager at risk of losing customers because the company’s Customer Service centre is in turmoil following a major reorganisation, and cannot provide the level of service the customers have come to expect

The issues in these cases are not to do with external circumstances, but with the way organisations are structured into functional ‘silos’; people with the relevant accountabilities only have ready access to talk to each other at the very top of the organisation. The problem with this is that these are not the people who experience the daily frustration of the problem on the ground.

What’s the Answer?

Some organisations try to deal with the issue by reorganising into a ‘matrix’ structure, to allow all the relevant stakeholders to talk across traditional functional boundaries. Unfortunately few make a good job of this, resulting in an atmosphere of fear, confusion and uncertainty, where all the familiar structures have been swept away. It’s crucial if a reorganisation like this is carried out, to address the new issues it produces, of role clarity, and who is accountable for what. We too often see restructuring in organisations regarded as a ‘magic bullet’ which will solve all the organisation’s ills, when some clarity of thinking and clear assigning of accountability is really what is needed.

It is far more important in resolving these cross-functional issues to assign clear accountability for the problem process to a named ‘process owner’, together with the authority to deal with issues right up and down the line until it is fully resolved. The right person to be the ‘process owner’ is the person feeling the most pain from the problem! Indeed, if accountability for these cross-functional issues is clearly assigned in this way, and effectively exercised at the level of the organisation that is feeling the most pain, major restructuring might not even be necessary!


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