Why No One Can Kill Zombie Problems. Even When The Solutions Are Obvious.
When you spend on solving obvious problems, you live in a dysfunctional world more than the cost of problems. But don’t despair. Most companies are dysfunctional. Most companies live with zombies.
I understand that such generalizations are off. But as you look around your organization, can you honestly say that you are dealing with problems decisively and effectively? Do you recognize that the same problems have been hanging around your company for years, but you don’t have the means to deal with them? Can you admit that the harder the problem, the more likely you are to avoid it – especially if friends are part of the problem? Can you admit that the whole world of “leadership” is a confusing mess (no matter how many books you read or master classes you attend)?
All of these are par for the course. But here’s the thing. If you add up all the meetings, drinks, discussions, phone conversations, texts, task forces, coffees, off-sites, coaching, committees, relationships, dinners, and who knows what else you’ve spent on these issues, you’ve overspent. Beyond the cost of the problem itself. Is the problem too difficult to solve? Are they beyond human capacity? Of course not. We simply refuse to see – or do – the obvious.
I know you know that you’ve had a million conversations about the same problem with the same people over the years. But the problem (and the people) are still there. Some of them get nasty, almost like they’re actually taunting you to do Are some companies unable to solve obvious problems with straightforward solutions? How in the world was it possible for Sears, Kodak, Blockbuster, JC Penney and Nokia to miss the trends that were screaming at their door? How is it possible for obvious non-performers to keep their jobs when everyone knows they are non-performers? How is it possible for companies to achieve their strategic objectives remotely? There are many questions.
The problem is clarity
Let’s look at three “simple” problems that consume endless time, energy and resources – but are still unsolved. Let’s start with the sale. Let’s say the quota is missed – more like. How complex is this problem? Is it innocent? Mysterious? New? Are your competitors – whose sales are climbing – having the same problem?
Another look at: strategy. Is it impossible to maneuver? Does anyone have a better strategy? Why is there no coherent strategy in your company? Why is there no shared strategic language? Or purpose?
Let’s finish with technology. Every company on the planet needs technology to transact what they sell or service. Many companies sell the technology themselves. Do companies pay enough attention to the essence of their competition? Do they understand the range of technologies available? Is technology voodoo?
The solution is transparency
Let’s revisit three issues: sales, strategy, and technology. Are they really that hard? I have lived and worked in companies with these and other issues many times. I’m often shocked at how obvious the solutions are but how reluctant companies are to follow best practices after decades of failure (which comes from best practices). Note that the entire consulting industry is based on the unwillingness of companies to solve their own problems – no matter how obvious they are. What an old saying? “A mentor is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time and then keeps the watch.” If you believe it, then why are so many of them running around your company? It’s all about zombie control.
Let’s start with the sale.
An easy way to find out why sales are bad is root cause analysis. Sectors can be evaluated. Ascents are targeted, decliners are jettisoned. Product readiness can be evaluated against the competition: good, bad, good, best, worst. Look in the mirror and invest in growing sectors against weaker competitors with good/good/best products. Sales cycles can be measured across segments. Sales team and salesperson performance can also be measured: weed out laggards, reward high performers, hire and train accordingly. Are the machines smart enough to kill the sales zombies? You bet, because the process can be modeled objectively. So what’s the problem? Let’s be honest with ourselves: subtlety, explanation, empowerment, delay, fear, friend, caution and incompetence are just a few of the characteristics of the zombie problem that prevent solutions from working, where the real root cause analysis should be focused. We know how to fix sales; We simply refuse to do so. Because no one wants to take responsibility over a sales zombie which is why this particular zombie has over a million lives.
How about strategy? It’s easier than selling. Isn’t it interesting that there are thousands of books and articles about “strategy”? Why are there so many books because the problem is so difficult? Do we really need all these “new thoughts” about strategy every 10 seconds? Is there so much “new thinking” about strategy? God, no. Because companies refuse to strategize in any committed way. And why is that? Because most companies are unclear about who they are, their current and future markets, their true value proposition, and how they will grow market share today, tomorrow and in three to five years – or they are too afraid to point in a specific direction. This is why companies don’t strategize – or strategize so poorly. Declaring goals, aspirations, market place and competitive differentiation is very risky. Placing informed bets on how you will make money today and tomorrow is very risky. It’s not because it’s too hard to do. You’re not betting the farm, just informing yourself, your employees and stakeholders of promising competitive results.
Technology? Can we accept that all companies today are tech companies to some degree or another? Failure to accept this obvious reality is mind boggling. (Please don’t push back on this. You know you’ll die without technology.) So why is technology so poorly done? Because common business-technology principles are ignored. Some of these principles include business case use, funded innovation, cloud computing, microservices, data lakes, SaaS delivery, governance, emerging technologies (especially AI and machine learning) and process modeling/mining – none of which are complicated. You are still debating the cloud, you are in denial. If you refuse to see the transformative power of AI and machine learning, you need to shut up. So why are these principles ignored? Why are there still so many spectacular technology project failures? Here we go again: nuance, friend, explanation, empowerment, delay, caution, fear and incompetence prevent technology solutions from doing their job.
The Sheriff and the Terminator
If brevity, friends, explanation, empowerment, procrastination, caution, fear, and incompetence prevent solutions from working, how do you deal with them? Consultants! Before the M&A, LBO, hedge fund and PEVC guys come in, consulting sheriffs and terminators should be hired to do the hard work. That’s the real reason God created counselors – not to tell you when it’s time – which is often obvious – but try So you can do the obvious. Consultants provide an arm’s length to executives who are reluctant or unable to make difficult decisions. It’s easy to point the finger elsewhere, isn’t it? Mentors repeat this role year after year. But do they have a secret solution that only they know? Are they smarter than everyone in your company? No of course not. But they are willing to kill zombies.
Everyone knows how many problems zombies have. When you look back on your career, how many people should you have fired long ago (if you ever did)? How many sales, strategy and technology teams should you restructure – or move – for obvious non-performance? How many problems have you defined too vaguely – or not at all – only to avoid them? Why do you agonize so endlessly about the obvious solution? How many zombies have you had in your life? How many are still there?
Use consultants properly. They know things. Here’s what they know about killing zombies:
“Almost all zombie survivalists agree that brain destruction is the only sure way to neutralize a zombie (although some rare types of zombies require complete dissection).”
But whose brain are we talking about here?