Friday, December 11, 2009

The Demise of the Keeper of the Problem

While the concept of synergy has been widely espoused throughout the business world and certainly does result in many positive benefits, it is seldom the answer to problems, because the synergistic approach is intended to supplement other management philosophies and practices, not totally supplant them.

The basic concept of synergy – that cooperative interaction produces a result greater than the sum of individual efforts – has manifested itself in various ways, many of which are based on the Total Quality Management platform. But there is an old adage that says “When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.” And the strict adherents to the synergistic approach unfortunately (or conveniently) forget that adage. Those proponents/adherents like to believe that group dynamics is the only way to problem-solve. But what they forget is that someone still has to accept ultimate responsibility for problem resolution – someone has to be the “Keeper of the Problem.”

Businesses cannot operate successfully when everything is done by the committee process (which is usually the outward manifestation of the synergistic approach) – there are simply too many different disciplines involved in the running of a successful enterprise for everyone to be deeply involved in everything. Yes, looking at issues from a variety of disparate points of view brings new perspectives and uncovers additional potential strategies and solutions. But what happens after the identification of deficiencies and their resolutions is what distinguishes the traditional management philosophy from a totally synergistic approach. In the synergistic model, all stakeholders in the problem and resolution identification process believe that they all share responsibility for resolution implementation. This is usually a logistically-unworkable situation. But the traditional model recognizes the value of outside input while still placing responsibility for resolution implementation squarely where it belongs, with the person or department with direct and specific expertise, authority and responsibility for the issue at hand – the “Keeper of the Problem.”

Even in organizations which claim to totally embrace the synergistic approach, there usually are some vestiges of the traditional management model: Departments are usually delineated by common function; individuals usually have job descriptions/titles connoting their specific functions; and some hierarchical structure usually exists. So there is some recognition of role and rank delineation, based on subject-matter expertise, which in itself concedes that everyone cannot know everything about everything; and which also concedes that order and efficiency necessitates some role and hierarchical rank delineation. In other words, every organization needs to identify subject-matter expertise and assign commensurate authority and responsibility – to the “Keeper of the Problem.”

Keeping everyone aware and advised of everyone else’s issues and problems is basically a good concept – it gives a broader perspective and helps everyone understand the “big picture.” But what usually happens is that people begin to think that they know everything about everything, and that they can thus fix everything. So everyone becomes involved in everything ELSE, frequently to the exclusion of their own job.

In days of yore, when dinosaurs roamed and ruled the planet, everyone had a neat and compartmentalized job. Everyone knew exactly what his job was, and it was expected – nay demanded – that the jobs be performed to a high degree of excellence. And when everyone had a job and knew how to do it and in fact did it, everything got done well. And that included security and loss prevention. And our companies’ assets were protected, and the world was happy. Because there were “Keepers of the Problem” – people with responsibility and commensurate authority and accountability.

This is not a new concept – it is tried-and-true. We didn’t get away from this concept because it didn’t work; we got away from it because the management gurus (ala Tom Peters) found that offering new ways of doing things with the HOPE that things might get better would sell their programs. But what they forgot to put in their books and videos and training programs was that change does not always bring positive results; change can also bring negative results. Change is not necessarily better, it is just different. And……. something that has been said for far longer than any of us have been around is still oh-so-true today:

Too many cooks spoil the broth.