Corporate Masochism: What’s the safety word?

Flogging a dead horse.  Wasting your time and mine.  Competing in a rapidly diminishing space.  Failure to find product market fit.  Not knowing when to stop.  The definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result).

Whilst still unacceptable in larger organisations, at least these practices can be resourced (assuming the whole of the rest of the organisation is not similarly engaged in fruitless tasks).  In a growth organisation they are terminal; resource spent in pointless activity starves other avenues of investigation of oxygen.  A strong narrative raises more money to pour back into the leaky bucket, ultimately burning investors – and potentially destroying markets.

Jack Welch’s biography described the senior management of GE’s nuclear power division discussing their new plant sales targets with him in the early 1980s.  What was significant in the nuclear power industry then?  Three Mile Island – the disaster of 1979.  Welch told the managers the market for new plants was dead, and that they should adapt the division’s business model to services – no one was going to be buying new power stations with public opinion firmly against nuclear power.  He didn’t understand the way the business worked (he was told), but a) he was CEO, and b) he understood how people made purchase decisions – particularly in the domain of critical public infrastructure.

It reminds me of the Grolsch man in the late 1990s and early 2000s adverts – someone needs to step in and just shout ‘stop’.  Group think is a terrible thing, leading to terrible consequences.  Without perspective organisations are prone to engaging in extended periods of corporate masochism – it’s not working, so try harder, and everyone remains or becomes increasingly miserable.

There are endless management texts on this subject (see above: Jack is a good primer), so I won’t indulge in a set of paragraphs doing a bad job of regurgitating these – rather, here’s a list of scenarios which, if you find yourself in them, should lead to pause for thought – and asking the question ‘Am I engaging in corporate masochism?’


  1. ‘What we need to do is push harder’
    • Why?  Pushing isn’t working, so find a way around whatever’s stopping you


  1. ‘What I want is a keen young person who’s entrepreneurial to …..’
    • So you want someone else to do something you don’t like doing, involving the expenditure of lots of energy, ultimately for your benefit?  If you don’t like doing it, there may be an underlying problem (assuming everyone enjoys success)


  1. ‘We need boots on the ground’
    • Do you?  It hasn’t worked in countless international situations – and a military ‘solution’ is never a solution – it’s just an enabler of political solutions


  1. ‘This worked before’
    • But the world, in my personal experience, changes immensely – it might not work now


  1. ‘I want a sense of activity’
    • Do you?  I generally want a sense of success, not a set of busy fools


  1. ‘It’s obvious’
    • Show, not tell – it might be ‘obvious’ because of a firmly held, outdated, value system – if the audience cannot see it, it isn’t obvious


  1. ‘How can you be so sure?’
    • It’s not always possible to be sure – but mix known ‘activity to output’ efforts with some risk taking, because a risk appetite enables innovative thinking


What’s the safety word?  The Grolsch man has the answer, and when someone says ‘stop’ take care to listen to them to understand why they are applying the breaks.


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