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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • July 10, 2022
  • minute read

3 Signs Your Organization Has Become Comfortably Numb 

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

When an organization loses its way and starts to decline, irrespective of size or age, the core reason is almost always some version of numbness. 

Numbness to the customer, numbness to change, numbness to feedback: any or all of these are usually lurking in the not-yet-obviously-failing company, silently spreading a lukewarm, sometimes comfortable rigor mortis through the skeleton and organs of the company.

First, perhaps, it happens in the fingers and toes (interaction with the customer); now, slowly still, appearing in the arms and legs (supply chain, in and out); then, perhaps a little faster, spreading to the heart and the brain (vision and leadership).

How can this happen to once proud, once vibrant organizations?

How can a business, a not-for-profit, a church, even an NGO be the passionate expression of a vibrant vision one day, and a zombie-like husk, a pale comparison of its more successful competitors, the next?

Well, the main answer is that it doesn’t. Happen in a day, that is.

"When an organization loses its way and starts to decline, irrespective of size or age, the core reason is almost always some version of numbness" - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success

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Organizations don’t (generally) suffer the kind of blunt trauma incident that might put a human into a coma instantaneously.

Instead, in an orgainzation, the numbness starts quietly, unannounced, almost certainly unrecognized, in a small backwater, somewhere far from oversight.

Then it grows – as institutional numbness always will (it being a parasite of bureaucracy, which drives out initiative, creativity and risk-taking) – quietly coursing through the veins of the organization.

It finally chokes the heart and shuts down the brain, leaving a shell of an organization that cannot innovatecannot compete, and is destined to die.

This process can take a decade, a lifetime (literally), or a generation in which to happen. But however long it takes, once the process starts, it's almost always next to impossible to reverse.

My observation is that generally, eighty percent of the damage is done over a 3-5 year period – a short time, relatively speaking, but still glacially slow enough for the process to go unnoticed until the damage is almost irreversible.

How do you guard against creeping numbness happening in your organization?

Here are the three most common indicators that your organization is in danger: 

1. Lack of a challenge function.

One of the first things that accelerates the growth of numbness in any organization is the squashing of any serious internal challenge function.

If key Visionaries leave, either of their own volition or because they’re pushed, it’s never a good sign.

Take a look around. Increasingly surrounded by yes-men (or women)? Rarely challenged on anything significant? You’re probably on your way to what we here at Predictable Success call Treadmill - the first stage of ultimate decline.

2. Putzing with the data.

Organizations on the decline rarely admit it. Call it self-denial or post-rationalization, either way, it’s so rare to hear a mea culpa from a dying organization that it’s news when it happens.

Do you find your team (or maybe even you) re-cutting data to make it look closer to what you projected in the first place? Grabbing at statistical straws as evidence that you were right? Arguing in the face of overwhelming quantitative evidence?

Or worse, bullying or manipulating people not to present that negative evidence in the first place? 

If you do any of these – or you see your senior colleagues doing so – then chances are you’re in The Big Rut - a state of terminal decline.

3. Growth of “compliance”.

Is it more important that your website is HTML 5 compliant than it be a marvelous experience for your web visitors?

Do new customers have to fill in seventeen fields in an online form, just to give you money and do business with you?

Are your suppliers forced to jump through hoops before their products and services, your lifeblood, after all, arrives in your loading bay or conference room?

Yes, every organization needs systems and processes to scale, but no, having a rigid, pervasive compliance culture isn’t a necessary side effect.

Look around – apart from those areas where you don’t want to break the law (financial fraud, product quality, for example) – if your compliance police are in charge, you’re in trouble. 

What about you? Is your organization displaying signs of becoming comfortably numb?

Let Me Know In The Comments Below!


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  1. Rightly put, Les! I agree with you on these. I had an experience of my business being comfortably numb. We sort of started to go easy in terms of our target audience's experience while interacting with our business in any way. We mainly failed in our website's user experience. Gradually, we corrected that.

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