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Story of the glass slipper

Cinderella tells the story of a downtrodden orphan sister who wants to go to the ball.  With only rags to wear, her fairy godmother comes to the rescue.  She casts a spell that turns her rags into fine clothes on the condition she leaves the ball by midnight, when the clothes would return to rags again.  Cinderella has a wonderful evening and a romantic dance with a Prince before realising midnight was approaching.  As she rushed away one glass slipper falls from her foot that paves the way for the final part of the romantic story in the reunion of the Prince to Cinderella.

However, how did the glass slipper survive after midnight? Wasn’t the glass slipper meant to return to rags again like the rest of her clothes as the spell broke?  We build a whole latter half of the story on a false premise.  An assumption we thought was true but in fact wasn’t.

So it is in organisations

Does this happen in organisations?  Do we build assumptions and constraints around ourselves that are actually not true?  If so, how prevalent is this, why does this happen and what can you do about it?

How prevalent is this?

When we run our EPOCHS Strategy® Workshops we ask our participants to describe their own assumptions for setting strategy and constraints to achieving business objectives.  We have already analysed datasets about assumptions from the broader market and organisational data as well as interviews with a range of executive leaders.  In the workshop, we write down the assumptions and constraints and ensure there is common understanding for each and rank them in order of importance.  Over the course of our work we then unpack, challenge and reframe each of the assumptions and any organisational constraints.  On average we conclude that around 50% of the constraints are not true.

This is a really high number, but we see consistency of this proportion from project to project.  This means that most, if not all, organisations build themselves constraints to organisational success that are simply not true.  As one participant put it:

“We build ourselves walls that are actually not there”.

By inference, if constraints are removed then the organisation should meet its objectives.  So, it makes perfect sense to start by removing those constraints that are not true, so the organisation can concentrate on the real one’s that do exist.

Why does this happen?

There are many reasons organisational constraints exist that aren’t true:

  • Inheritance: Some organisations are built upon constraints that are inherited through the organisational hierarchy over time. Even though new people join and challenge the assumptions or constraints, strong cultural forces rationalise those by stating that it ever was and that it is healthy and career enhancing not to challenge those assumptions. There may even come a time when no one remembers why a constraint even exists. e.g. a taxi fleet owner asking whether they need to own the vehicles that operate under the brand.
  • Dominant cultures of practice: Strong cultural practices that are reinforced through policies and reward systems tend to prevent challenges to established norms including assumptions and organisational constraints e.g. the demise of photographic film at Kodak, the rise of digital photography and eventually the sharing of photos electronically instead of in print.
  • Blind spots: Organisations that tend to overly look inwards and with shorter time horizons of planning will become blind to external factors in their organisation.  They may continue denying or rationalizing external data but hold close a false internal narrative to maintain the status quo. e.g. the demise of RIM Blackberry after the launch of the Apple iPhone and their belief businesses would not accept lower security standards from a consumer devices company.
  • Success: Organisations that have maintained continued level of success for more than 2-3 years tend to encode strong cognitive models that are extremely hard to break.  The brain is highly fuel efficient and resists changing if it does not need to do so – common in steady state companies.  E.g. Start-up companies are seen as innovative not in their ability to do new things but in their ability to think differently due to constant cycles of failure and learning.
  • Biases: Strong cognitive models, that form from sustained success, also make the organisation susceptible to affirming biases e.g. We notice things that match an existing pattern.  We seek out data that confirms our belief.  We use our current mindset to think about the future.

What can you do about it?

The longer the organisation has sustained success, and if at least 3 years, then these false organisational constraints are more prevalent.  It is hard to even see them when you are inside the organisation, but these 3 Tips may help:

  1. Name them – Write down your organisational assumptions and constraints in the course of day-to-day work and share them amongst each other to develop a master list.  Naming your assumptions and constraints brings them to the forefront of your thinking and you can ask each other what would happen if any of them were not true.
  2. New brains – Ask the opinion of new people to the organisational system, whether they are new staff members, new managers or trusted advisors.  They do not have strong cognitive models about your organisational norms so see the organisation without bias.  Don’t seek to rationalise their response, but just write down what they say and match the responses to your list of assumptions and constraints.
  3. Data – Build a new data set around each of the assumption and constraints and see whether the data tells a different story to the belief. If it does, again, don’t try and rationalise it.  Strong belief systems, when challenged with sound data analysis, will try and deny (the data is not true) or rationalise (the data is true but not relevant to us) that data to maintain the status quo.