"Break Down The Fiefdom"

Investor's Business Daily
Date: 12/1/2004

In medieval times, lords ruled distinct fiefdoms, steering industry in little corners of the kingdom, fiercely defending the hedgerows that sealed them from the outside.

These days, you can Instant Message someone in Taiwan from your bungalow in the Bahamas. But, in corporate halls, fiefdoms - areas ruled by one person or department - often still thrive like the plague.

"To a greater or lesser extent, fiefdoms have been part of every organization I've ever encountered," said Robert J. Herbold, former chief operating officer of Microsoft, whose recent book, "The Fiefdom Syndrome," puts corporate fiefdoms under a lens.

Along with making companies clunky, fiefdoms can eat away at innovation. Why? Those who inhabit fiefdoms usually see no reason to shake the status quo.

"They (fiefdoms) often come about because one very smart or successful individual wants to do things his or her way," said psychologist Carl Robinson, Ph.D., principal with Advanced Leadership Consulting in Seattle.

If you smell a fiefdom in your firm, don't despair. Even the greatest companies have wrestled with them, Herbold notes.

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton routinely sniffed out fiefdoms, pushing staff to streamline procedures.

"It's not that people who exhibit fiefdom tendencies are mischievous or unethical," Herbold said. "These behaviors are simply natural human tendencies that emerge as people try to exercise control over their workplace environment, protect their domain and avoid change that might upset the present order."

Wish you could take a medieval ax to the fiefdoms in your company, so creativity can flourish? For starters:

Jar the system. "Where creativity is desirable, it is important to organize people around the task," Herbold said. When workers get too attached to status, they get dull.

Delegate. "Creative people need to feel they have responsibility for their ideas and plans," Herbold said. Measure effectiveness and progress, but keep it lean.

Encourage independence. "Often it is the individual who marches to a different drummer who is the most creative," Herbold said. "Yet these are often the very people management wants to put constraints around."

The problem? "As the individuals charged with being creative try to second-guess what management wants them to do, they become internally focused, as opposed to being genuinely creative in addressing their consumer needs."

Skip the training. While education's important, all-day seminars sometimes lead to navel-gazing and ritual, which can lead to fiefdoms, Herbold suggests.

Keep it simple. Streamline the trip from idea to marketplace, and you'll be less fiefdom-fertile.

Melt meetings. While it's true that collaboration can boost creativity, multiple meetings and memos are often the stuff of fiefdoms. "Too often in organizations, things get proceduralized to an excessive degree," Herbold said. Never rank process above product.

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