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JOHN F LAWRENCE

Further Study, Cop-Out Often Mean the Same

January 18, 1987|JOHN F LAWRENCE

Don't do it, study it. That is the guiding principle in too many executive suites these days--a nice, safe way to say no to new ideas and thus avoid taking chances. For the indecisive manager, it is the perfect cop-out.

The chief financial officer of one big Los Angeles company called attention to the problem rather succinctly recently. After sitting through a two-hour presentation of a several-months-long study of potential new marketing ventures, he remarked: "These sound like things we should just do. We're always studying things so long, we miss good opportunities."

Unfortunately, bureaucracy prevailed, and the study continues.

At another company, new management of one department can best be described as report-happy. Before anyone can do anything, there has to be a formal plan committed to paper. The requirement is so tedious that it tends to snuff out a good bit of innovative action. Ironically, the new boss calls them "action" plans.

"It's really a shame when it's the proposal that's so important and not the results," says one of those who serves under the "action" man. "Every time a piece of paper goes out, it has babies."

In some cases, the don't-do-it, study-it syndrome is the first sign of encroaching bureaucracy. As small companies become larger and more complex, the quick response to opportunity often gives way to committee meetings and drawn-out financial analyses.

Studies and Reports

This is especially true as top management, through merger and diversification, becomes more and more remote from the product line. Typically, the big conglomerates operate with a small group of professional managers and, while they delegate much authority for decision making, their means of keeping abreast and maintaining control is through studies and reports.

The computer plays into this scheme because it permits so much more analysis of data. Managers feel compelled to have all this information on hand so they can defend their decisions if they turn out badly. Yet this activity is making big companies more like big government, where the easiest way to put off tough decision making is through naming another commission.

Recent efforts on government waste and on U.S. competitiveness are good examples: Detailed studies were made, but those who commissioned them haven't done much with the results.

Too many corporate studies lead to similar lack of follow-through.

A lot of inaction is camouflaged in the ubiquitous monthly report. Many companies require one at almost every level of management, yet most of these reports exaggerate what has been accomplished and skip over what hasn't. Many of them go unread in any case.

Rebirth of Spirit

Supposedly there is a rebirth of entrepreneurial spirit under way at many major companies. At least, their top executives are talking about it. It is doubtful, however, that many would-be entrepreneurs will be able to survive the typical corporate study process.

Part of being entrepreneurial is being willing to take risk, to fly by the seat of the pants. Sometimes it leads to disaster. Occasionally it leads to the birth of an IBM. It is curious that at big companies, with the resources to take risks, it is so much more difficult to get bold decisions than it is at some new, smaller firms.

There is a further problem with studies. All the paper they produce is often all that gets to the top decision makers. Hence, the decisions on new ventures are impersonal, unaffected by the drive and excitement of the people who propose them. It becomes easy for hidden agendas to take control, such as the jealousy of a department head over anyone else getting credit for any moves that are made.

Hence, it was refreshing recently when one local chief executive called for a personal briefing from some of his aides, sans studies. The result was an unusual amount of give-and-take, not to mention the encouragement of a little face-to-face contact. It is obvious that with the cost of getting new ventures started, no company can be asked to fly completely blind. A lot of companies, however, are losing the ability to fly at all.

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