September 24, 2022

When the time you spend solving obvious problems exceeds the cost of the problems themselves, you’re living in a dysfunctional world. But don’t despair. Most companies are dysfunctional. Most companies live with zombies.

I realize that such generalizations are disgusting. But as you look around your organization, can you honestly say that you are solving problems decisively and effectively? Will you admit that the same problems have been hanging around your company for years, but you just don’t have the resources to deal with them? Can you admit that the more difficult the problem is, the more you avoid it – especially if friends are part of the problem? Can you admit that the whole world of “leadership” is a jumbled mess (no matter how many books you read or master classes you take)?

This is all par for the course. But here’s the thing. If you add up all the meetings, drinks, discussions, phone calls, messages, working groups, coffees, outside parties, trainings, committees, relationships, dinners and who knows what else you spent on these problems, what you… spent far exceeds the cost of the problems themselves . Are the problems too difficult to solve? Are they beyond human capacity? Of course not. We simply refuse to see – or do – the obvious.

But why?


I know you know that you’ve had a million conversations over the years about the same problems with the same people. But problems (and people) still exist. Some of them get worse, almost like they’re actually mocking you do something. Are companies simply unable to solve obvious problems with simple solutions? How could Sears, Kodak, Blockbuster, JC Penny and Nokia miss the trends that are screaming at their doorstep? How can the obvious non-performers keep their jobs when everyone knows they are the non-performers? How is it possible for companies to screw up their strategic goals? There are so many questions.

Clarity of the problem

Let’s look at three “easy” problems that consume endless amounts of time, energy and resources – but still remain unsolved. Let’s start with the sale. Let’s assume quotas are missed – like a lot. How complicated is this problem? Is it unsolvable? Mysterious? New? Are your competitors – whose sales are growing – having the same problems?

Let’s look at one more: strategy. Is it impossible to make a strategy? Does anyone strategize well? Why is there no coherent strategy in your company? Why is there no common strategic language? Or purpose?

Let’s finish with the technology. Every company on the planet needs technology to do business regardless of what they sell or service. Many companies sell the technology themselves. Do companies pay enough attention to the essence of their competitiveness? Do they understand the range of technologies available? Is technology voodoo?

Clarity of solutions

Let’s go back to the three problems: sales, strategy and technology. Are they really that tough? I have lived and worked with companies on these and other issues many times. I’m often amazed at how obvious the solutions are, but how reluctant companies are to follow best practices honed from decades of failure (which, after all, is where best practices come from). Keep in mind that the entire consulting industry is based on the unwillingness of companies to solve their own problems – no matter how obvious they are. As the old saying goes? “A consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is and then keeps it.” If you believe this, why the hell are there so many of them running around your company? It’s all about controlling the zombies.

Let’s start with the sale.

Root cause analysis is an easy way to find out why sales are poor. Sectors can be evaluated. Those who rise targeted, those who fall rejected. The readiness of the product can be evaluated in relation to the competition: good, bad, better, best, worst. Look in the mirror and invest in rising sectors against the weakest competitors with good/better/best products. Sales cycles across segments can be measured. The performance of sales teams and salespeople can also be measured: weed out laggards, reward high performers, recruit and train accordingly. Do machines have enough intelligence to kill sales zombies? You can bet, because the process can be modeled objectively. What’s the problem? Let’s be honest with ourselves: nuance, interpretation, empowerment, delay, fear, friends, caution, and incompetence are just some of the characteristics of zombie problems that prevent solutions from doing their job, which is what root cause analysis should focus on. We know how to fix sales; we simply refuse to do it. This is because no one wants to be in control of a sales zombie, which is why this particular zombie has over a million lives.

How about a strategy? This one is even easier than selling. Isn’t it fascinating that there are thousands upon thousands of books and articles on “strategy”? Are there so many books because the problems are so difficult? Do we really need all this “new thinking” about strategy every 10 seconds? Is there so much “new thinking” about strategy? God, no. This is because companies reject strategy in any dedicated way. And why? Because most companies are unclear about who they are, their current and future markets, their true value, and how they grow market share today, tomorrow, and three to five years from now—or they’re simply too afraid to commit to a particular direction. This is why companies don’t strategize—or strategize so poorly. It is simply too risky to declare goals, aspirations, market spaces and competitive differentiators. It is too risky to bet on how you expect to make money today and tomorrow. It’s not because it’s too hard to do. You’re not betting the ranch, you’re just informing yourself, your employees and stakeholders about promising competitive results.

Technology? Can we just accept that all companies today are technology companies to one degree or another? The failure to accept this obvious reality is astounding. (Please don’t give up on this. You know you’d die without the technology.) So why is the technology done so poorly? Because the general principles of business technology are completely ignored. Some of these principles include leveraging business cases, funded innovation, total commitment to cloud computing, microservices, data lakes, SaaS delivery, governance, new technologies (especially AI and machine learning), and process modeling/mining – none of this is complicated. If you’re still debating the cloud, you’re in denial. If you refuse to see the transformative power of AI and machine learning, you need to sober up. So why are these principles being ignored? Why are there still so many spectacular technology project failures? There it is again: nuance, friends, interpretation, empowerment, delay, caution, fear and incompetence prevent technological solutions from doing their job.

Sheriffs and Terminators

If nuances, friends, interpretation, empowerment, procrastination, caution, fear, and inability prevent solutions from doing their job, how do you deal with them? Consultants! Before the M&A, LBO, hedge fund and PEVC guys arrive, consulting sheriffs and terminators should be hired to do the heavy lifting. This is the real reason God created consultants – not to tell you what time it is – which is often obvious – but to tell you try it to make you do the obvious things. Consultants help managers who are unwilling or unable to make difficult decisions. It’s easier to point the finger elsewhere, isn’t it? Consultants repeat this role year after year. But do they have secret solutions only they know? Are they smarter than everyone in your company? No, of course not. But they are willing to kill zombies.

The Takeaway

Everyone knows zombies are too much trouble. As you look back on your careers, how many people should you have fired long before you did (if you ever did)? How many sales, strategy, and technology teams have you had to reorganize—or eliminate—because of obvious underperformance? How many problems have you defined too confusingly—or not at all—just to avoid them? Why did you endlessly agonize over so many obvious solutions? How many zombies have there been in your lives? How many more are there?

Use consultants the right way. They know things. Here’s what they know about killing zombies:

“Nearly all zombie survival experts agree that destroying the brain is the only safe way to neutralize a zombie (although a few rare types of zombies require complete dismemberment).”

But whose brain are we really talking about?

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