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Posted: October 07, 2013

The baling-wire-and-braces strategy

It's not a way to hold together a company

Todd Ordal

Driving across Wyoming on a recent vacation, we saw a house that was held together with more baling wire and braces than joists and concrete. You could almost see how it got that way.

The porch started to sag, so they built some temporary stairs a few feet away. It was a slight inconvenience but got the job done until the porch sagged further. The fence started to list so they added some temporary braces.

It didn’t look good, but they held it together for the short term. The shingles on the roof were torn off so they temporarily put up a piece of sheet metal to cover the bad spot. It was noisy and looked odd, but it worked in the short term.

I suspect that the people living there didn’t even notice the workarounds or the inconvenience that they were caused. It’s like gaining a couple pounds per year. You’re OK for a few years, but one day, you’re very overweight!

Many organizations have the same wire and braces that the Wyoming house did. Rather than correct problems or prevent them, they use contingency measures or adaptive techniques. While often good short-term solutions, when you don’t correct or prevent problems, you end up with an organization full of ineffective and expensive processes and structures such as:

  • Reporting relationships developed for personality reasons that make no sense.
  • Compensation plans that reward the wrong behavior—often in conflict with the company’s vision or strategy.
  • Technology solutions (often developed in-house) that punish the users and only make sense to the developer (now guaranteed employment so that he can “fix” issues).
  • Physical space that is inefficient but rented from a brother-in-law. (Put the new guy in the closet…)
  • Human resource practices that made sense in a start-up world but not when more “adult-like” behavior is required.

You can usually uncover these when a new person is hired or an outside resource looks at the organization and asks, “Why?” The response usually starts with something like, “You need to understand our history…” Sometimes you just wake up and think, “How did we get this way?”

Sometimes you need to do a spring cleaning on the structures systems and processes you are employing to catch up with reality. Baling wire and braces are not intended to be permanent construction materials!

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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Readers Respond

Thanks, Robert. We just remodeled our house (no metaphor here, I mean hammers and nails) and as I looked at the cabinets and fixtures in the dumpster, I thought, "Why did I wait so long?" By Todd Ordal on 2013 10 07
Brilliant as always Todd. Love the adaptive house metaphor! By Robert on 2013 10 07

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