Management Inbreeding with Darrin Ladd

Episode 40

December 28, 2011



The Agile Weekly Crew and Darrin Ladd discuss management inbreeding.

**Jade:** Hello and welcome to another episode of the Scrumcast. I’m Jade Meskill.

Roy: I’m Roy vandeWater.

Chris: I’m Chris Coneybeer.

Management Inbreeding, Why Bad Cultures Thrive

Jade: We have a special guest with us, Darrin Ladd, from “BigVisible”. Darrin wanted to talk about management inbreeding, why do bad cultures grow and thrive at large companies, right Darrin?

Darrin: Yes, it’s a topic near and dear to my heart seeing that I’ve been working with the same large organization for the last two and a half years doing coaching.

Jade: Wow. Why don’t you tell us a little about why do you think this happens?

Darrin: It’s a great question. Why don’t we define first off what this means, what I mean by management inbreeding. The idea is this, that within large organizations it becomes, sometimes this feeling of we don’t know what to do with this person. Let’s take a very commanding control Project Manager, who is really upsetting all of the project teams that they are working with and everything.

The HR organization and maybe there management doesn’t know what to do with them, sometimes unfortunately they say, “Maybe we’ll just try a new position, maybe we’ll try him as a team manager.” They suddenly get into the position of quite a bit of influence around, how people are rewarded formally and informally. As most people do they have, people are need this person had a strong need to survive. They kind of change themselves and what they do is they start to mold themselves around, how kind of the success that this person defines for them.

People who may originally have been very collaboratively minded, wanted to work together, wanting success for everyone, may suddenly become very focused on themselves, very much trying to be the Superman that stands out above everyone else and solves all the problems and makes everyone else look bad.

There is all sorts of, of course all the things that we have run into that we have seen that can be negative and suddenly that is, what they are doing to shine for this person. The interesting thing that happens is that this person recognizes that the person who stands out the most or does the most negative things, or it least negative to me, they recognize that as a positive. This is because they see a reflection of themselves in that person and they start to reward that significantly.

Soon what happens is that person who was a manager gets promoted to a senior manager or director or whatever your organizational structure is. They start promoting up underneath them the people who most closely reflected their own image.

Soon what you have is a whole organizational structure that has been grown up underneath this negativity. It’s very difficult for them to see any other options. That’s what am talking about management inbreeding, this perpetuation and growth of negative views. What happens within this is a self reinforcement because of the fact that as this individuals get promoted up they’ve been successful in this bad way of working, bad way of interacting or negative way.

The people above them and around them are like minded to them and therefore they continue to be rewarded for this. That’s really what I’m talking about here. I want to stop talking and open it up to you guys.

Jade: [laughing] That’s great and I don’t think that it is limited to just large companies. I’ve seen very small companies that exhibit the same behavior. A lot of that driven by whoever that leader is, the CEO, the President, essentially doing the same thing. Maybe not to the same scale but replicating that same kind of behavior.

Inbreeding Tends To Be Worse The Older An Organization Is

Roy: A question I have, Darrin, is that you talked about working with some of the large organizations and Jade you brought up small organizations. Do you think that this inbreeding goes deeper and deeper especially if a larger organization is or the longer the organization has been around?

Darrin: I see it worse in the larger organization. I definitely recognize that it can happen in a smaller organization. The reason why I feel like it happens more strongly in larger organizations is because the influence of just a couple individuals in a small organization and their seeing things in a different way can be larger.

The reason why I say that is even if you think about your circle of friends, if you are together with four other people and you are all having this debate, maybe it’s not even a debate, you are all agreeing on the fact that the current president is horrible or this or that or whatever. Sometimes in that small a group, all it takes is one other person walking over with a different perspective to start to change the conversation.

Whereas if you’re in a huge room of a hundred people and you section yourself off into a little group and you start having that conversation and everyone agrees with you and you reinforce that, an introduction of somebody else within that whole organism, within those hundred people isn’t necessarily going to change your conversation, your self‑reinforcement of your own views within that small group.

It takes a much larger effort to start changing that larger culture or that [indecipherable 6:07] cultures that happen within larger organizations.

Why Are Negative & Not Positive Qualities Propograted

Jade: This manager inbreeding, the big promise that it causes that it creates a lot of [indecipherable 6:17] within the company? Because I guess the question that I’m thinking back to is this perpetuation of negative qualities. Is there a particular reason why it is only negative qualities that are perpetuated and not positive ones, like a [indecipherable 6:31] bunch of positive qualities as a manager and I see those positive ones in people below me that I promote for those types of things?

Darrin: That’s a great, great, great point. It really points out the whole other side of this that I should have introduced when I started talking about this. Which was, it doesn’t necessarily have to be negative qualities or negative interactions. It really is just a set of people who are all like‑minded.

If we look at…I don’t know, large organizations, Nike is a good example of a large organization that had market dominance back in the early 80s. They had market dominance in just men’s sports shoes. If they had stayed with their sweet spot and continued forward, they would have limited their ability for growth and their overall success in the long run. Who knows, maybe they would have even had a downfall and disappeared like some of the other just strictly sports shoes retailers.

What they did was they started to realize that having all of these people who were single‑minded in the pursuit of men’s sports shoes wasn’t going to make them successful, and so they said, “We need to get new ideas. We need to get new perspectives. We need to have people in here that don’t think the way we do to challenge what we believe.” So, in the early 80s, they hired their first female director. They started hiring people that previously to that, they never would have thought of hiring. Suddenly, one of the things that came out of that was they started to align women’s leisure shoes which now they are the market leader.

It’s the trap of this idea of like‑minded. I’ll tell you, I’m one of the people who do a lot of the interviewing and hiring for my company BigVisible, and it’s a trap that’s very easy to fall into because when you’re interviewing somebody, you’re looking for how easy are they to talk to, how easy are they to work with. You really don’t want that, not on all cases. You want somebody who’s going to challenge the norms. You want somebody who’s going to think slightly differently, give those different perspectives.

It maybe feels a little bit uncomfortable to work with them because they don’t see things the exact same way that you do.

Injecting New Perspectives

Jade: That’s great I think. In Integrum our room, we have no problem with that. We’ve got a lot of very different perspectives. We don’t [indecipherable 9:05] It is a very good point. That’s a very important part of the company culture.

I think your example about Nike is a great one. From a company recognizing that they have a problem from the top‑down and taking drastic steps to change their culture and inject new life. What happens when, maybe, you’re a little bit lower in the organization and you’re seeing this monoculture ahead of you, what can you do to try to gain influence or make difference within the organization?

External Consultants Can Jumpstart

Darrin: That’s actually a really, really tough thing to do, I believe, especially from within the organization, a lot of times, when a culture has built up that’s basically uniform and it has all of those self‑reinforcing antibodies that it’s built up. It’s extremely difficult to start working your way through that and help people to see that there’s a benefit from different perspectives.

I’m an external consultant. It’s a lot easier for me than somebody who’s internal within the organization.

Hopefully, I guess one of the things is brings somebody in from outside who can start modeling some of the different types of behaviors: questioning things, asking the questions that everybody else is thinking but too afraid to say, because they’ve seen time and time again that this leadership or organizational structure culture beats it down.

There’s a safety there that can be very scary, especially in larger organizations. You run into people who have been working for this org for 10‑15 years, and there’s these legends out there of that person who asked the wrong question in a meeting, got on the blacklist, and never saw their career go anywhere, but stayed with the company for another 20 years and languish.

Those are the types of things that really hurt the ability for people to feel like they can start to challenge these cultures within organizations. I know I didn’t answer your question very well, because I honestly think it’s extremely difficult to do internally.

Modeling Behavior Is Path To Culture Change

Jade: Yeah. I think it’s hard. I think one thing I’ve seen that’s successful is start to model those behaviors in the area that you do have influence, even if it’s just you and your peers, and start to show success. That usually gets some attention, and people will at least give you some sort of consideration. Hopefully. [laughs]

Darrin: Yeah, that’s a really good point, because what I have seen as well is that, sometimes, the culture isn’t as bad as perceived, so there’s a perception of not allowing certain things, not allowing these types of questions, not allowing doing things differently.

Sometimes what you can do individually is find someone maybe higher up that you have an individual conversation with, asking these types of questions or pushing the envelope a little bit, and you find that bright spot. You find somewhere within the organization where it’s like, “Hey, you know what? This person gets it,” and you start from there and you start having that grow virally.

You’re right, there are ways of doing it. I was thinking more of that big step forward, which is very difficult, but small steps, absolutely.

Jade: Yeah. You can’t go about it with just reckless abandon, because you will end up being blacklisted.

Darrin: Yeah, definitely. I call them antibodies, and I use that term very meaningfully, because there really is a whole organism.

Examples of Success

Jade: Darrin, why don’t you tell us, do you have a success story where you’ve seen this culture begin to change, transform, and turn into something that is vibrant and has a whole new life?

Darrin: I have. I do. At the beginning, I said that I’ve been working with a company for about two and a half years, and there are lots of subcultures and larger, grander cultures within this organization. One of the ones that, actually, was really exciting was…there is the tip leadership culture within the organization, was one where everyone was completely afraid of ever questioning, basically, the CIO, the highest‑up person.

Any time she was in a meeting, they shied away from making any statements that might be considered even negotiable at all. Anything that might be something that you could go either ways. It was very politically charged. Slowly, what we started doing was actually asking some of those questions ‑‑ not the really tough ones, not the ones where you’re putting anybody on the spot or anything like that, but just started asking, “How do you see that?” or, “Why do you think that way or this way.”

The amazing thing that started happening was we started seeing that the CIO, that would sit down and say, “This is the way it is,” in the meetings, she would very visually and very verbally change her mind, show that, given some different inputs, she could change the way that she perceived certain situations.

This started to open up the group of executives to start questioning each other in front of her and start questioning her, and not questioning her or each other in a negative sense, but really like, “Wait, why do you think that way?” “What do you see that makes you feel that way?” “Wait, can you expand on that? Because I don’t quite understand.”

Suddenly, there was a culture of really trying to dig into things and understand it rather than try and stay safe and cover things up. You ask for a big one, and that, to me, in my mind, was the biggest one, because this was a group of individuals that, up to that point, were playing a major zero‑sum game.

If one person asked a good question, everybody else was angry because they didn’t ask that question rather than really trying to collaboratively work together.

Is Vulnerability Required

Jade: Do you think it takes that person to make themselves vulnerable and show that that strategy can work in order for other people to get on board?

Darrin: In that case, I think it did, because, in that case, they all looked at her to see how they should act. There was a very hierarchical view in that case. I don’t think that’s the case in all scenarios. I think there are even situations where you have a group of peers that are very much collaborative in nature and work together as peers, but there still needs to be somebody who starts that, that single point, that single bright spot that starts to show that there’s a different way of acting that could be positive.

Jade: That’s great. I’m coaching an organization right now that’s going through some pretty radical transformation. They’re quite large. I see them teetering on the edge of making some of these mistakes. They have some open positions and they’re getting nervous about trying to fill those positions, so they’re just casting about looking for someone to fill in.

What would your advice be to an organization that is in this precarious position, where they’re in the midst of a cultural change, but they might pull in the wrong influences that could start this whole management inbreeding all over again?

Darrin: That’s something that I’ll tell you my company actually struggles with all the time. Why I say that is because my company itself has more work than people to do the work, or has more opportunity ‑‑ let’s put it that way ‑‑ than people to do the work. As a small consulting company, it hurts every single time you say, “OK. We can’t do this one. We need to get this away to a partner. We need to suggest that they talk to this person or that person.” But what we found is that, that’s absolutely the right call.

It’s keeping the integrity of your organization and making sure that you have that right cross‑section distribution of people and that the people that you’re bringing in truly align with your values. Not necessarily of the ways that you might see things, but of your values is crucial.

Giving up some market opportunity, giving up some business that you might be able to get to be be able to sustain the culture that you have. Maybe slow down some growth, I think, in the long run will actually make you more successful. That’s my opinion. Do I have a lot of examples of how that’s worked in past and how successful that’s been? Actually, I don’t.

I haven’t done a lot of research on that. It’s my gut feel right now.

Jade: Once again, I’d like to thank Darrin Ladd for coming on and joining us on Scrumcast. Very much enjoyed the conversations about inbreeding inside organizations. Hopefully, it helps our listeners try to open up their minds and think about, “How can we start to challenge the norm?”

Darrin, thank you very much for being on. We hope to talk to you again in the future. Is there any information you’d like to give out for our listeners?

Darrin: Sure. First, something I want to say. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me on. Really good conversation.

Jade: Thank you very much.

Darrin: The company that I work for is BigVisible. You can find us at I’d be perfectly happy to hear from people given…if they have some opinions about this or even just to reach out and talk about other topics. So, thanks.

Jade: OK. Thank you, Darrin. Thank you very much for joining us. We’ll see you on the next Scrumast.

Darrin: All right. Thanks.

Related episodes