Rent the Stadium!
The CEO of a scientific enterprise decided that the organizational culture needed to change. After years of autocratic rule, there was a pent-up need to make the culture more inclusionary and participative, moving away from a strict “need-to-know” basis characteristic of a rigid hierarchy. Meetings came to involve progressively larger numbers of people. Smaller conference rooms fell into disuse as larger conference rooms were booked week in and week out. Absent complete consensus, no decision was made. Decisional gridlock grew worse. Sometimes it would seem that a decision had been reached only to find that a “huddle after the huddle” caused it to unravel or be reversed several days later. More people were getting involved but fewer decisions were being made. The decisions that were reached were less certain and sturdy, more diluted than anyone wanted. What’s more, staff feared exclusion because career well-being was perceived as revolving around visibility at meetings rather than around genuine contribution.
As the organization lost faith in its ability to move quickly, every move, no matter how minor, involved a large entourage. Results-oriented people were finding ways to circumvent the crowds and get things done “their own way.” As each faction pursued solutions in its own way, nascent anarchy picked up a head of steam.
Top executives became fixated on the process of inclusion and on minimizing discontent. The process of setting strategic priorities, e.g., deciding what not to do, allocating resources, aligning talent, etc., was getting lost.
Who can be against transparency and inclusion? It builds a future generation of leadership and confers additional benefits. On the other hand, renting the stadium to ensure that everyone has been included is not sustainable for all issues all of the time.
The solution was to adopt a Decision Process Model for making, ratifying, and communicating decisions and to clarify roles and responsibilities with precision sufficient to target meeting attendance with greater parsimony. The model pre-specified types of decisions where complete consensus is necessary vs. alternate forms of decision-making process, authority and accountability. When roles are poorly defined, there is no sharp edge for cutting meeting attendance to the vital few, and no basis for avoiding rent-the-stadium syndrome. Even good intentions can have unintended consequences, which must be managed promptly before things get out of hand.