“Great leaders evaluate their (organizational) structure on an ongoing basis and they’re never afraid to break the mold. No matter how good you think your design is, be prepared to change it if the circumstances demand.” Lee Cockerell

I worked as a contractor at AT&T in the early 1980s, just as the infamous “1/1/84” breakup ruling was being announced.  Longtime managers were dumbfounded and mystified as to how “Ma Bell”, the benevolent technology empire of the 20th Century, could be changed.

Putting aside technological advance and free market force arguments, the big reason AT&T no longer exists as it did was because the multiple layers of meddling and muddling middle management worked all day long to justify their own existence, not the existence of the company.  The E level and up directors had lost all touch with the day to day realities.  Managers and workers knew that.  No one was interested in making the company work, just to work the company.

I remember a Friday when an entire layer of management and three divisions were summarily wiped out.  There were tearful goodbyes of course, but on Monday morning, Ma Bell hiccuped, and then amazingly, moved forward, without them.  Instead of keeping the old axiom “change, or be changed” in mind, the “new” management just kept the same old mindset and business as usual reigned.  This “reduce and resume” mentality still had a few more cycles yet to run.

I watched this dance of death until 1987 when I left.  The company was stubbornly clinging to the old way of doing business and it killed the company.  We cling to what worked, past tense, instead of what we need to be working, present tense.  You have to know your company, know your business, know your people, and know your customers…and then adapt to meet the new realities.

That doesn’t mean throw out everything and start over again.  Old doesn’t mean it’s bad and new doesn’t mean it’s good.  The managers can’t exist without the workers and vice versa and you need to keep real lines of communication open 24/7, or else you’ll be the last one out the door.  Don’t forget to turn out the lights.


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