Robert Bruce: shed those shackles

Businesses today, in a constant state of flux, require perpetual crisis management. They should take a step back and concentrate on what's really important, advises Robert Bruce, The Times' accountancy editor

Once upon a time there was one thing that management experts all agreed about. The worst possible situation you could find yourself in was that of perpetual crisis management - referred to colloquially as fighting fires. Today, such is the pace of change, lack of management resources and chaos of the modern management organisation, that fighting fires is what most of it is about. Most organisations feel as though they are out of control. They are barrelling down the Cresta Run.

They are still, just about, keeping the sled on the track. But they have no idea how they are managing to do it. If they do get to the bottom more or less intact they will get out and grin at each other because they will feel they got away with it without the outside world noticing how close to utter disaster they were.

This, of course, is no way to run a business. And we are now on the verge of the holiday season. People should not have their minds on the terrifying mayhem at work. They should be longing for those times when, in their dreams, they can regain peace of mind, think things through, and return refreshed. If only there was a management equivalent to the old stock market adage of 'sell in May and go away'.

Fighting fires

But it can be done. People should step back from, for example, management reorganisation. It has become standard practice. To keep the share price up and people on their toes, large organisations insist on re-inventing themselves constantly. Change-management programmes, it is argued, should last forever. No one should feel secure. Everyone should feel that their work, their job and the organisation is in a perpetual state of flux. This is nonsense. But it's very hard to stop.

Or take the merry-go-round of globalisation. Everyone is aware that the paradox of instantaneous worldwide communication is that senior executives insist they have to go to the other side of the world to tell someone something and then come all the way back again. This is because they have confused management with the idea of a perpetual state of change. It is not nearly as exciting to send someone a message. Senior executives must be on a plane, passing through fast-track channels at airports, being offered a complimentary massage while trying to get their laptop to work, heading out for a feast at the best local restaurant, otherwise they're not fulfilling their role.

And then there is the wonder of emails. People boast of how many hours earlier each day they have to be at their electronic gizmos to cope with the steadily increasing stream of emails. This is seen as a management skill. The more of it you do, the more value you are adding. It never crosses anyone's mind that the electronic gizmo can also be told to return each message with a note saying: 'There is no need for this to be sent. Think a bit. Sort it out. Send me a letter afterwards saying how the problem was solved if you wish to send anything at all.'

The culture of emails is reaching the same pitch of intensity that used to occur with briefcases. Ten or so years ago, the craze was to outdo your colleagues with briefcases like those used by pilots of intercontinental jets. The idea was that only people who were visibly carrying around two tons of paper were doing any work. That fashion only faded when it became obvious that the real successes were those people turning up at meetings with just the proverbial sheet of A4. We have yet to reach this moment of enlightenment with emails.

It is also time to take stock of the investment banks' efforts to push the idea that the only way to keep a share price up is for the organisation to split apart, launch a bid, sell off the core business, parcel up the subsidiaries and go for a separate listing - or any other structural chaos that will bring the investment banks and other advisers enormous unexpected fees. An amendment needs to be made to company law. It should be made illegal for any company director to be able to sit in a boardroom without a sign saying '98% of all mergers and acquisitions reduce the value of the organisation and end in tears' being clearly visible at all times. All studies show that the overwhelming majority of mergers and acquisitions are disasters. So the only possible reason for continuing is pure ego, and possibly a desire to distract people's attention.

Or take the idea of systems implementation. This is another route to chaos. Management teams desperately try to convince other management teams that a new system, purchased from clearly incompetent and over-selling outsiders, has to be up and running by next week. This sucks in more management time than anyone could calculate, costs a large fortune and loses the organisation considerable numbers of highly competent staff who decide they can't take it any more.


All these examples add up to nothing more than the old-style of management by fire-fighting. It has no place in the organisation. But the key point to recognise is that it is also displacement activity. All these examples are activities that people go through because they want to appear to be both frantically busy and up with the global marketplace. None of them have much to do with running the business effectively.

So, as the holiday season approaches, the important strategy to adopt is simple. Go AWOL, as the armed services used to put it. This can be done in the mind. You don't have to really go absent without leave. But you can gradually stop taking part in all these displacement activities. And you will find that, as you withdraw discreetly, your mind will fill with other things. They will be simpler things. They will be about how the business really works, how it is organised, what it does and how it makes money and grows its reputation.

The next step needs no effort. Your mind, untrammelled with the old nonsense, will fill up with ideas of how to keep the business growing. 'The big agenda', as the managing partner of one of the world's largest accounting firms said, 'is the unleashing of the shackles'.

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