Monday, October 25, 2004

Managing Dead Horses

In my travails as a manager and a periodic lecturer on management, I am constantly amazed at how some managers, many of them highly placed, seem to continue making the same mistakes over and over again. Explaining good management practice never seems to penetrate because the lessons don’t seem to fit the problem as these managers perceive it. Sometimes, the lesson is best explained with an analogy and these are some examples of poor management as explained by a fellow project manager who has clearly encountered more than one of these management solutions to otherwise intractable management problems.

In terms of Project Management it is always a good plan to get off of a horse when you discover that it is dead, but this logic isn’t always followed by modern managers who seem to insist on alternative strategies. I’m sure you will recognize some of these strategies and may even have attempted some of them yourself, so here they are – the alternative strategies to dismounting a dead horse.
1. Changing Riders
2. Buying a stronger whip
3. Falling back on “This is the way we’ve always ridden”
4. Appointing a committee to study the horse
5. Appointing a committee to study the horse’s equipment
6. Arranging a visit to other sites to see how they ride their dead horses
7. Increasing the standards for the performance of dead horses
8. Increasing the standards for the performance of dead horse riders
9. Appointing a committee to revive the dead horse
10. Appointing a committee to review the acquisition standards for horses
11. Appointing a committee to review the job description for riders
12. Creating a training session to improve riding skills
13. Comparing the state of dead horses in today’s environment with those of previous decades to show that today’s dead horses are really an improvement
14. Changing the standards so that the horse is no longer technically dead
15. Hiring an external consultant to show how the dead horse can still be ridden
16. Harnessing several dead horses together to increase their collective performance
17. Increasing funding (horse feed) since the horse is obviously malnourished
18. Declaring that “No horse is too dead to ride”
19. Doing a study to determine if outsourcing will reduce the cost of riding the dead horse
20. Buying a computer program which is guaranteed to enhance dead horse performance and productivity
21. Declaring a dead horse more cost effective than a live one
22. Forming a process action group to find uses for dead horses
23. Promoting the dead horse to a position of greater responsibility

Did you wince? Did you recognize some of the actions you may have taken in the past when you discovered that a project you launched isn’t meeting expectations? Certainly it is easier to look back and criticize because hindsight is always 20:20 but then at the time some of these may have seemed quite reasonable. Of all of these the first one is the one that is most commonly implemented because it presumes the horse is dead because of the rider so what is needed is another rider. At the base of this strategy lies the manager’s belief that the project he initiated is sound but it is the leadership (not his of course) that failed. Sometimes this dead horse will have several riders and owners before a manager has the courage to declare the horse is dead and no rider can get it to run or even walk.

Another favorite and one that you see with company mergers, is the idea that if you can’t get the dead horse to perform, harness it to another dead horse in the hopes that they both will suddenly come to life and perform as never before. How many times have you observed this in the corporate world? Ironically, when this happens you sometimes get the Zombie effect as the two dead horses begin to shamble and stumble about in some semblance of competitive life.

The fact is that when the horse is dead – bury it. This is a hard lesson but it is surprising how many otherwise intelligent and reasonably competent managers can’t bring themselves to declare the horse is dead even though they can see it is lying on its back with all four feet straight up. But as an experienced Management Consultant, I must admit that in many cases the manager who has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the horse was dead was promoted to a higher level position seemingly reserved especially for dead horses with no discernible brain activity, frequently with such grand titles as Vice Chairman or even CEO. I guess this is attributed to the miracle of modern (management) medicine and it requires the intercession of an outside consultant to declare the horse is dead.

By way of disclosure this dead horse analogy is not original with me but I do not know its origin so I cannot attribute it to the original author. Only the comments are mine. C.

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