Problem Solving: Fix the Toxic Corporate Culture that is Stifling Innovation and Market Value

It was years ago, but I can still remember the madness that surrounded me. The IT organization was a complete mess and filled with chaos. They were kept at arms-length by the business and marketing teams. They were not included in the detailed discussions involving new innovation. The digital marketing team even created their own little IT team to avoid the toxicity. Coming out of this environment (and similar situations over the last 15 years, I have learned how to identify and navigate the murky waters to solve multimillion dollar challenges. Using a model similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which many people should be familiar with (or at least remember bits of it from high school or college). As a refresher, the hierarchy is more of a theory that lists the stages of growth that humans go through generally in life. The stages identified by Maslow are:

  • physiological needs (basic physical requirements for human survival),
  • safety needs (personal, financial, health, etc. security),
  • belonging and love needs (friendships, intimacy, family),
  • esteem needs (respect from others and self-respect)
  • self-actualization (a person’s full potential and realization of that full potential), and
  • self-transcendence (focus on a higher outside goal, altruism, or spirituality).

As I have spent the last 18 years in and around technology, I noticed a familiar theme in dealing with IT organizations, digital teams, and IT acquisitions, what I call an “IT Hierarchy of Needs.” This hierarchy is a stack of needs that can increase the likelihood that your IT strategy, implementation, and ongoing innovation will succeed. Although, this theory is not a guarantee of success, ignoring these organizational needs will increase your probability of failure.

  1. Physiological Needs (working space, offices, open working environment, collaboration spaces)

    The physiological needs for an IT organization focus on providing an open working space that is collaborative and fosters the sharing of ideas. If your IT team is walled off from the rest of the organization or is kept out of the loop during digital strategy, technology assessments, and vetting of new solutions, then you are handicapping your ability to build real value for your customers.

  2. Safety Needs (IT security, cyber capabilities, security awareness, information safety best practices)

    Once the basic physical needs are met, and your IT team is in physical proximity to the business teams, the next step if security and safety. Recall that “a chain is only as strong as it’s the weakest link,” well an organization is only as safe as it’s the weakest point. To strengthen the weak points, educating staff on security best practices is key. Many cyber programs implement ongoing security testing across the organization, randomly sending decoy spam and phishing scams via email. More organizations need to implement these practices especially in light of the 2016 election hacking by Russia on political organizations in the U.S. Contact and communications from unfamiliar sources should be immediately forwarded to cyber personnel for review and evaluation.

  3. Belonging and Love Needs (friendships, trust, real collaboration)

    Once staff feels like they are safe and secure in their physical environment, they can start to build relationships within their group and across the organization. These relationships, collaboration, and information sharing should be encouraged visibly from the CEO down to facilities staff. I remember working for a client where it was actively encouraged for their employees to not share insights and data across divisions. The leaders of this organization assumed this would create competition and lead to better performance. The actual outcome was decreased market share, disgruntled employees, and an environment where the only people able to get work done were the consultants billing $200-$500/hr. This reminds me a saying that rings true: “There is always money to be made in chaos.” In order to save time and money, break down the silos and incentivize staff to build connections. I have personally benefited from building relationships everywhere that I have worked or consulted, getting to know the business, technology stack, and key decision-makers. This approach allowed me to identify the top pain points and problems across the organization and share these insights with anyone that would listen (not hoarding knowledge like a secret pot of gold).

  4. Esteem Needs (respect from others and self-respect)

    Once real relationships have been established based on mutual trust and friendship (not the passive-aggressiveness common in the corporate world), information is being shared, and problems and being identified and solved collaboratively, 2 interesting things happen: 1) respect starts to build between people and groups, and 2) self-respect starts to grow among individuals based on their positive impact on their team, department, the organization, the industry, etc. As proof, look at the reviews of any company on Glassdoor. You will see a common theme develop. Organizations that foster positive physical environments, safety, and security, and encourage real collaboration, relationship-building, solicit problem-solving and innovative ideas have the highest ratings. Companies that do none of these activities will have the poorest ratings.

  5. Self-actualization (organizational full potential and realization of that full potential)

    For many organizations, there is a wide gap between their full potential and the value that they actually create and deliver. As stated in the previous section, most of this can be identified by not implementing the practices outlined here. When staff and leaders are focused on dealing with silos, internal fighting, employee morale, and lack of new ideas, they can’t focus on what the organization’s full potential and how to get there. Many times, it never occurs that there is a better way to operate. However, once the previous steps are in place, this opens the door to a wide world of new ideas, problem-solving, value, innovation, and market share.

  6. Self-transcendence (focus on a higher outside goal, altruism, social/societal good)

    Once an organization is thriving internally, increased market share, customer value, staff morale, etc., they can then turn outward to more altruistic activities. These activities transcend the organization, founders, and executives by focusing on one or more societal challenges that can and should be addressed. For example, the Gates Foundation was formed after Microsoft and Bill Gates had accomplished most of the activities outlined here (Microsoft went through a period of malaise after Gates stepped down as CEO, but has since returned to its former glory). Warren Buffett is focused on his Giving Pledge now that the legacy of Berkshire Hathaway is established. There are many, many other examples that I can give of organizational self-transcendence, but hopefully, this is enough for now.

Daniel is a digital consultant specializing in IT advisory on technology strategy, investment, and implementation. He helps companies solve complex and strategic problems across multiple industries and domains. His drive to find solutions for clients and attain personal growth for himself is what keeps him at the forefront of innovation and helps him guide teams and organizations to cultivate amazing products and services. He can be found on Twitter at @dewilliams.

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