An Incomplete List of Org Smells
Three of the most common ones I see
I’ve spent a great deal of time with software engineers. They’re my clients, my former co-workers…I even married one. One of my favorite concepts I learned from them is code smells. Here’s how Martin Fowler describes it, “A code smell is a surface indication that usually corresponds to a deeper problem in the system. The term was first coined by Kent Beck while helping me with my Refactoring book.”
I see something akin to this in my field — the human systems operating inside a business. We have surface indications too. I call them org smells. These smells indicate a problem in the organizational part of the business. I hear about them in my work all the time. They often arise as leaders navigate organizational friction. A leader wonders what they’re doing wrong. Other times they feel out of step with their peers. They know something is wrong but can’t identify where the problem lies: with themselves, a peer, or at a system level.
The problem can be with an individual leader. I know plenty of stories of execs who left a company because they weren’t up for the challenge. And, organizational issues can masquerade as individual leader failure. Sometimes the problem is at the system level. The entity has troublesome org patterns or emerging needs that need attention. When the problem goes beyond one leader or isolated situations, they permeate the org. Once this happens it's harder to accomplish goals and retain great folks. The culture begins to contort and can even become toxic. Recognizing org smells helps us keep a healthy culture while moving us toward our objectives.
An incomplete list of org smells
A leadership team that has pleasant conversations
Everything looks good from the outside. We don’t fight. We look like we get along. We’re pleasant with each other. While this may seem desired, it’s actually a sign of an organization that isn’t functioning well. It’s artificial harmony. We’re not talking about the hard stuff. This pleasant tone can come from a lack of trust, a leadership team that hasn’t gelled, a prominent leader who instills fear, or unintentional favoritism. In conflict-avoidant cultures, the real issues remain hidden, where they stay unresolved. While open disagreement feels harder, it reveals conflict. Once surfaced, we have a better chance of navigating the issues and, making better decisions.
Shuffling poor performers from team to team
Not every person hired will end up being a fit for the role or the company. Despite our best efforts, it happens. Someone’s performance or attitude may turn negative as they change roles or as the company shifts. This happens, especially in scaling companies. In companies with this org smell, rather than have the difficult performance conversations, team members are shuffled around. Sometimes moving someone to a different team does resolve a problem. Often it’s a form of avoidance, a game of hot potato. If there’s a leader who isn’t afraid to manage poor performers out, they might get labeled as an ineffective leader. This hides the real problem — a lack of performance management at an organizational level. It might also indicate a highly conflict-avoidant culture.
Burnt out leaders
While sometimes leader burnout is individual, often organizational causes are lurking. Leaders on the edge of burning out may hint the company is taking on too much. They need to prioritize the initiatives most likely to bring them the objectives they seek. Another cause is a hyper-competent leader who’s too overloaded. They need more support. This org smell can happen during critical periods like when the company is looking for product/market fit or when scaling. Feeling burnout beckon? It might be time to look at the organization and the leadership roles needed.
Org smells happen. Just about every company has had an org smell at one time. Leading a business is hard work. We juggle so many priorities. Conditions change and it takes time for issues to surface. There’s no shame if you notice one of these occurring — it’s just an sign to take a deeper look.
Until next time,
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