It’s the system that is stupid, not the people

- Leadership

by Vasco Duarte

One of the questions I often get is ‘Should we try to convince ‘old fashioned’ managers to change their ways, or should we try to support those who are already on their way?’ It’s a difficult one and I’m not sure. But quite recently I’ve heard a story that, I think, provides at least a part of the answer.

From start-up to professionally managed

A friend of mine has a company, let’s call it Company X. They started out in 2000 and the first few years showed a steady growth. People worked together just fine and, when the company reached about 50 workers and things got somewhat more complicated, they changed from a start-up into a professionally managed company. My friend and his team thought long about it and read some books on the subject. They then came up with a set of rules and restrictions. Control became stricter and they started to work following fixed processes. It seemed the sensible thing to do: they where now ready for the future.

From that point on things somehow weren’t as much fun as they used to be.

All hell breaks loose

To his endless frustration the role of my friend the CEO started to change. Instead of doing stuff he started fixing other people’s stuff. Suddenly, his workers seemed unable to make the right decisions. It got worse and worse and he became afraid to leave the office; not knowing what he’ll find on return. He read some books on the subject, slightly improving some things. But nothing seemed to work the way he would like it to. More and more my friend started to feel the pain of it all. Not building things, but restricting, controlling or, somewhat more positive, approving things. Slowly he began to lose trust in his people. He told me he clearly remembers one day; he was sitting in his office and thought, ‘If I would leave now for only two days, hell will break loose.’

Open your eyes

My friend realized things couldn’t continue like that any more. The turning point was when someone asked him, “Have the same people who a couple of months ago autonomously did the right things turned into unintelligent and unreliable or is there something wrong with the system?” He then realized the system was to blame and defied hell by locking himself into a summer cottage with a new stack of books that might provide some answers. He raced through “Open Book Management”, devoured “Great Game of Business” and feasted on “Lean Software Development”. My friend opened his eyes and saw the world with different eyes. It wasn’t the people that were stupid; it was the system that didn’t work. Things had to change and he now knew where to start.

Does my friend Tuomas Syrjänen have all the answers by now? Not even close. But his company Futurice was elected ‘A Great Place to Work 2012’, has seen a profitable growth for the last 8 years and achieves high scores in customer satisfaction numbers. So it sure looks like he and his people are doing something good.

Photo: Oziel Gómez (Unsplash)

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