On the nature of longstanding organizations and how newcomers succeed or fail

I had a recent epiphany about newcomers to organizations. In particular, the fact that people who have been in an organization for a long time are able to do two things that a newcomer is incapable of achieving:

  1. They have optimized how to personally do less work by forming alliances with colleagues that are particularly effective at getting things done. Because they have found how to conserve energy and resources, they have both discretionary time and budget to do things a newcomer cannot.
  2. They can operate as silos because the silos have found ways to cooperate. And being a silo means it is a place of comfort because you feel protected. To operate from a sense of being protected makes you more likely to want to defend yourself and your silo.

Phenomenon (2) means that when a silo is threatened, then actions need to be taken. Because of (1) and availability of resources, the incumbents’ ability to take action against the newcomer is wholly possible.

Because we human beings are all inherently lazy, we would rather expend energy on keeping our lazy lives than to expend our energy on the extra effort needed to change the operating status quo.

A newcomer, meanwhile, is struggling to survive in a new environment. They are often not able to draw upon resources of time or budget — they often have neither. And by virtue of their being new, they threaten the status quo. So when we say how a newcomer can suffer “organ rejection” after they have joined an organization, I think it’s more a case of their forcing the organization to work harder when it has already learned how to optimize itself to work with less energy. So they end up on the receiving end of phenomena (1) and (2).

Because we human beings are all inherently lazy, we would rather expend energy on keeping our lazy lives than to expend our energy on the extra effort needed to change the operating status quo. I think it’s interesting how both defending the silo and adapting to new changes require energy. So I believe that laziness is at the root cause of (1) and (2) that result in how new energy gets expended — which is truly ironic. It would be a different world if an organization needing change could see how invaluable it is to invest the energy in the positive change over the negative pushback to change.

There’s a third factor to consider that involves organizational power. Some people like to wield power because it makes them feel good. I don’t know where it comes from, but given the history of our world it’s clear that a kind of power-hungry gene exists. The lazy gene is much more common I believe — because taking it easy feels pretty awesome :-).

The fourth factor to consider is that new ideas will often fail. So it’s easy to hear how the newcomer is bringing an idea that failed in the past. And it’s a great way to shut down any change.

When there is a power-hungry person, we lazy people are often happy to just follow them. That can have unintended consequences that can be really bad. And society can often fail to make corrections until it is too late (like Germany in the early 1900s). So it’s important to notice a difference between a newcomer who is power-hungry versus a newcomer who seeks to enable the success of the organization. It’s fairly easy to tell the difference, but simple stories are easily spread that makes any newcomer appear to be power-hungry. That is usually because the internal communication machine of existing power brokers within an organizations’ silos is acting to defend itself.

Lastly, the fourth factor to consider is that new ideas will often fail. So it’s easy to hear how the newcomer is bringing an idea that failed in the past. And it’s a great way to shut down any change. Because it comes with a memory of a how hard it was to try to change. Remember that we like to be lazy, so we’re not going to want to waste energy if there is no return on investment of time and resources. The fact that it failed in the past means that it’s definitely going to fail again. But that assumes a linear, predictable world. Instead, we now live in a non-linear exponential world. So we need to consider what my friend Jessie Shefrin often says:

“By the time you come to the perfect solution, the problem has already changed.”

This is an important idea to keep in mind for the newcomer who is coming in with new ideas. Your ideas will and should change. It’s necessary to iterate with them, and be decisive along the way. But never be dismissive of others’ thinking. Because you can be as wrong as you are right depending upon how the world has changed, and how the organization has changed. Expect change to be constant, and demand of yourself to be open to change constantly. Because we live in a time of exponential change.

A newcomer to an organization can succeed when they are not power hungry, when they can identify the silo dynamics of the organization with empathy for what came before, and they can be open to changing their mind and learning from the organization before coming to any conclusions that are not dataful.

Where am I going with all this? My main point is that a newcomer to an organization can succeed when they are not power hungry, when they can identify the silo dynamics of the organization with empathy for what came before, and they can be open to changing their mind and learning from the organization before coming to any conclusions that are not dataful.

And there’s something to be said about critical mass as the key factor to making change happen. When a newcomer bonds with other newcomers, it becomes possible to create a sense of psychological safety for newness. That doesn’t mean banding up against the non-newcomers — as that is a recipe for disastrous failure. Instead, it creates a baseline for having the opportunity and chance for the newcomers to share their vulnerability and benefit from psychological safety. It’s often impossible for newcomers to share their vulnerability with the existing veterans within an organization because it can appear like weakness. And in a competitive environment, by nature of the word “competition,” the weak shall/should be destroyed.

At this stage in my life, I find that I don’t have an issue when expressing my vulnerability to others. That’s because I have a lot of privilege. So I actively recognize that using my privilege to benefit both the newcomers and the veterans is always going to be an important thing to do.

In the right circumstances, when expressing vulnerability to colleagues, I’ve seen a willingness by others to offer help. And I’ve also seen how others see it as weakness that needs to be destroyed. I acknowledge both forces as important to how an organization exists and operates. I am fully appreciative of the forces that wish to destroy the newcomers, because they may be protecting the organization for a darn good reason that the newcomers completely miss.

So in conclusion, and in hindsight, everywhere but I’ve been invited to join has presented similar factors. Each time, I’ve had the opportunity to learn something new about myself as a leader. And I can’t wait to learn even more!

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Footnote: Andrew Hinton pointed out a term I used to love (but thought it too obscure) that works much better than lazyiness: satisficing. It was coined by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon. I wrote a post about him long ago.

Footnote 2: Kerry Hinton on LinkedIn points out: “Whilst I agree with (1) and (2), I don’t see the reason as coming from people being ‘inherently lazy’. Most people I’ve ever spoken with when researching ‘why’ are genuinely trying to do a good job and do good work – (1) and (2) occur as a result of trying to do this, and survive, in large and complex organisational ecosystems.”

Footnote 3: @cwodtke provided yet another dimension: I often use “overwhelmed” rather than lazy. Life is full.

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