Striving for a Sustainable Organization: Constraints and Recommendations
It was a late Fall afternoon in an old Italian restaurant where we met. The founder of a 20-year-old business wanted to engage with me about research into building sustainability and community resilience through operational improvements. His organization was suffering from growing pains (medium to large) and his goals were to improve how they did things, be more sustainable and put the organization at the center of the community. This leader’s job was to navigate the growth and performance of the organization. My goal was to produce valued results for the organization through this research. But the story had twists and turns, a play of cheap satire as Will Weigler (2016) might put it, which confounded and disturbed my studious planning as a researcher. Nevertheless, the results of my study led to insights into constraints to productive activities that further sustainability. You can read the whole story in my dissertation (Dominguez, 2020).
Recommendations for Leaders
Leaders who hope to increase sustainability in their own organizations have much to learn from this tale.
1. Bring Awareness to Founder Centrality: Founders are important to any economy. They are central to the early growth of a business because of many important factors, such as embodying a passionate care or generating a powerful guiding vision that rallies support for continuation. But, once the organization starts growing, the natural characteristics that were once successful can become detrimental, known as the founder’s dilemma and syndrome. Founders need to know that about 80% will be fired within five years once they lose financial control of the organization because their skills for growth are no longer sufficient to investors. Finally, founders might believe they are the most experienced and qualified to raise their “baby”, this can disenfranchise their entire team, lower the total productivity and followership the founder might have expected from loyal employees. Instead, founders can stay relevant by increasing knowledge and learning.
2. Increase Management Knowledge: All of us are incompetent in some meaningful way, in fact, if we are not incompetent then we are likely no longer learning. Skilled incompetence, as Chris Argyris (1986) called it, is using what you are good at to avoid what you are not good at and is counterproductive to innovation and adaptation. You can help the management team build the skills they need to succeed. They need psychological safety to take risks to avoid skilled incompetence. Finally, you can support by building them from a group on individuals into a team of allies, so meaningful growth can occur.
3. Promote Organizational Learning: For an organization to adapt to the ever-changing conditions it faces, it has to be able to learn from itself and from others. Organizations learn through the people that learn within it. Organizational goals must be clear and aligned with action. The structure should serve those goals and the group’s skills continually upgraded or outside skills brought in. When individuals can learn, they can also collaborate with others to adapt to change and create a culture of learning.
Argyris, C. (1986). Skilled incompetence. Harvard Business Review, 64(5), 74–79.
Dominguez, B. A. M. (2020). Productivity constraints in residential housing operations: A case for enhancing management knowledge to mitigate founder-centrality and organizational inertia. [Doctor of Social Science dissertation, Royal Roads University]. Retrieved from https://viurrspace.ca/handle/10613/23284
Weigler, W. (2016). The alchemy of astonishment: Engaging the Power of Theatre. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria.