One of the signs that an organisation is not in good health is when grand plans are being mooted while the basic functions are deteriorating. Tesla is a good example of this. What they need to do is figure out how to mass produce cars, deliver on customer expectations, and turn a profit. Instead Elon Musk is talking about building a network of tunnels beneath LA to relieve congestion. This is probably a distraction, but in other cases it’s simply a matter of the leadership being too distant from the coal face to understand the basics. Added to that is the ego of those who end up in charge believing they’re put on this earth to deliver grand projects to the masses, and the nuts and bolts that hold everything together are unimportant or beneath them.
A few years back I was pulled into a meeting where an enthusiastic young engineer was explaining the new project his department was undertaking. It would be a colossal interactive data centre containing every piece of information an oil company engineer could ever want to lay his or her hands on: drawings, 3D models, specifications, spare parts lists, process parameters, production figures, you name it. Data for every facility in the company would be centrally stored, updated in real time, and accessible to anyone who needed it. This project was backed by senior management right up to the CEO, who may or may not have recently attended a lecture in which the term “information is the future” was used. I was asked my opinion on it, and I said I thought it was absolutely fantastic, a brilliant idea which would transform the lives of every engineer working in the oil industry. Sadly, it was hopelessly unrealistic. One of the absolute basic functions of an oil company is to maintain up-to-date drawings of its facilities using an industry-standard document control system. My outfit couldn’t even manage that. The drawings were not available let alone updated, and the Engineering Managers to whom the responsibility fell either didn’t understand this was a key part of their job or they simply didn’t care. Either way, we had demonstrated we lacked the organisational and cultural discipline to run a standard database with a tenth of the complexity of the one they were proposing. In fairness, nobody disagreed with me on my assessment of our current performance, and admitted if this new system was to work we needed “a new culture”. Good luck with that.
Similar things were happening at the corporate level. I may be old fashioned and my views outdated, but I’m of the opinion an oil company’s long-term success depends largely on its ability to discover new oil reserves and its project management capabilities. Despite enormous expenditures and several large gas discoveries, we’d not found a sizeable oil reservoir in years (they still haven’t). As for our project management capabilities, we seemed incapable of bringing a project on-stream without years of delays and cost overruns which needed a widening of the columns on Excel spreadsheets to display. The reasons for this were pretty obvious to anyone who’d wandered the corridors for long enough with their eyes open (massive loss of expertise through retirement being the chief cause; compulsory gelding of all male managers another). But what was occupying the minds of senior management? A branch-out into renewable electricity generation and supply. Getting an oil company to supply your electricity is a bit like getting the army to organise your son’s twelfth birthday party. Which, to be fair to European armies, is something they’d probably do better than defending their borders.
Another example of leaders announcing grand plans while the foundations on which they stand crumble appeared on Twitter this morning:
Jeez. Bye pic.twitter.com/HHIUcIME8A
— Johnny Mercer MP (@JohnnyMercerUK) January 22, 2019
Angela Merkel couldn’t even manage to hold onto the leadership of her own party, and remains Chancellor only because Germany is so divided nobody can agree on a replacement. Emmanuel Macron jets from one international conference to another while the biggest mass protest movement seen in France since the sixties sets Paris on fire each weekend in opposition to his rule. Yet here they are announcing that Europe should become “the new shield for the people” under a Franco-German alliance that nobody else seems to know about.
One of the reasons so many British MPs are against leaving the EU is because it will force them to abandon the grand schemes they hope will get their names written in history books, and return to the mundane task of governing which they consider beneath them. In business as in politics, it’s a widespread problem with so-called leaders everywhere.