From this moment, you will conform to the identity we give you. You will dress only in MIB Special Services attire. You have been trained in the use of MIB-sanctioned technology, vehicles and weaponry. – Men In Black International Movie Script
The other day I went for a walk and, for no particular reason, the words above from the Men In Black films popped into my mind.
And as I thought about them I started to become aware of just how problematic such an approach is when you’re trying to build a responsive and agile team.
We imagine that a large organisation is a like a well oiled machine, a smoothly operating unit, a skilled team that goes in, does the job and gets out.
I remember reading about a particular businessperson who specialised in buying companies and turning them around.
He would send in a team of “crack” accountants who arrived in a fleet of black cars and when you saw that lot pulling up you knew the A-Team had arrived and things were going to get better.
Although, the real A-Team, if you go with the film depiction, is on that has a group of misfits who come together with unique skills and use whatever there is to hand to get the job done.
Now, we’re talking entirely about made up characters here but who would you rather have on your side – the MIB folk with their sanctioned equipment or the A-Team who would probably grab the kit off the MIB team and beat them with it.
Speed always wins.
If you’re twice as fast as the other guy you can figure out what they’re going to do and head it off before they do it.
The point I’m trying to make is that many organisations try to create standards and processes for their people to follow.
They give them IT equipment that is locked down, ask them to work in offices that are open plan and loud and don’t give them enough time to put their feet up and think or meet and collaborate with possible like minded people.
Many knowledge workers I know spend as much time trying to get their “sanctioned” equipment to work as they spend doing any actual work.
And because they don’t have the training or their IT teams have frightened them into using nothing but the most basic technology they either resort to mind-numbing tedium or chase after magic bullet solutions that rarely deliver anything useful.
All the time people who don’t have these constraints are busy creating and delivering work and getting more business.
On the magic bullet point, here’s a thing.
If you ever try and build a software product to solve a problem before you figure out if you can simply dissolve the problem by redesigning your system then you’re going to end up losing a lot of money.
Most business problems don’t require new technology or new systems.
Many organisations have all the technology they need and get a lot more for free if they open their minds to free and open source alternatives.
But they don’t know how to use what they have and the certainly don’t have the skills to change to some of the alternatives.
Now, if you’re a large organisation and you have resources that you can throw at the problem – and if you can convince someone else to pay for this – then you can create a solution.
The work that goes into creating such a solution is about as pleasant as having to climb a hill with your hands and feet tied.
You can do it, but you’ll need to expend a huge amount of energy along the way – and it’s really not fun.
But there is a market for such solutions and so at least you get paid.
The thing is that for most people the thing that gets in the way of them doing their best work is the organisation they work for.
You don’t have the same problem in a startup – because everyone needs stuff doing as quickly as possible.
If you want a really good strike team you should give them some basic kit and get them to forage for everything else when they’re there.
Elite armed forces carry as little as possible – there are certain things they have to have – thing that will help them operate quickly and with devastating effect.
There is clearly a balance – you need a certain amount of equipment to get started on any project.
But after that what you need is for the organisation and the technology and everything else to just get out of the way so you can get some work done.
But big organisations, in particular, don’t work that way.
Which is why you have some big organisations and some old organisations.
But there are few big, old organisations.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average listed the 30 largest companies of the day.
Of those, GE is the only one still around.
And it’s fallen out of the index now.
And the thing that did for many of those organisations wasn’t the competition.
It was their failure to change as things changed around them – they stuck with their markets and products and processes when they should have been learning and changing and adapting.
And if you’re in a position where you’re working with those kinds of constraints you may want to think about how you can wriggle free.
Because you’re the only one who can make sure you’re still moving when the organisation isn’t.