Corporate Viruses is an interesting sociological take on how bad ideas or practices that do not work become stuck and replicate within our organizations.

Corporate Viruses
Necessary Conditions
  1. An association with success (e.g. short-term benefits)
  2. The harm occurs in the long term –> causal ambiguity
  3. “it spreads quicker than it kills.”

An example of a corporate virus; I was called to support leadership development and coaching for an IT department. The department had ~300 people. They had a challenge of low on-time on-budget on-quality project completion – about 43%; high turnover of new talent that they aggressively recruited – 82% left in 3 months; slow response and decision-making time –  average time for new ideas to be implemented ~3 months.

When sitting with the Chief Information Officer and his HR Business Partner, I discovered that they had 7 layers of management.

7 layers of management! I asked, “What caused you to create this current organization structure and design?” The response, “With so many people leaving we gathered feedback and found that people want better titles and more authority to complete the work, so we created more management positions.”

They created more management layers to give people more power in the hope that they would stay longer. This ‘corporate virus’ spread and fit all the criteria:

  1. Association with success: The people asked and they got better titles and more authority. Creating the view of success that the IT leadership felt was needed.
  2. The harm occurs in the long term –> causal ambiguity: The changes made took a while to hurt, and the slow down of communication took a while to affect the organization. To the IT department, and most of the staff the changes felt good, and the short-term of more money and more authority seemed like it would work. 
  3. “it spreads quicker than it kills”: Once one director found out that another director was getting an assistant, all the directors wanted assistant directors. The same thing happened with managers, then supervisors, then subject-matter-experts … they all wanted assistant support positions.

The CIO and HR felt that the management team (~60 people) needed 3 full day leadership development workshops. I disagreed and felt they needed some organization development and re-design of structure, combined with coaching and consulting of the CIO, HR, and select Senior Management. We compromised on both.

It appeared that the creation of managerial layers was creating many of their challenges. Using my research in organization development and Requisite Organization, we did work on a re-development of how the IT team worked.

Through lessening the managerial layers from 7 to 3, with limited learning and development hours that pulled people off work, and kept everyone employed and at current salaries, an increase in on time – on budget – on quality work went from 43% to 67% in 10 months.

We managed to end this corporate virus and stop the management practices that were not working.

Stopping what is not working is one of the best ways to construct change and progress within a company.

  1. Examine that current environment to determine what is working well that you want to increase
  2. Examine the current environment to determine what is not working that you want to decrease
  3. Try some small experiments and see what happens

When these three steps are tried organizations can learn from change and ambiguity, developing a team that learns through challenges.

Leveraging diversity to amplify solutions Organization Development Mike Cardus