Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Fast Zebras

Almost 10 years ago, Harvard Business Review introduced the idea of “Fast Zebras.”

A fast zebra is someone who is singularly focused on achieving performance results, knows how the organization can both hinder and help, and charts their course accordingly. In particular, they are wise about when to use the formal and rational elements of organization (such as hierarchy, processes, and monetary rewards) and when to use the informal and emotional elements (including values, networks, and feelings about the work).

Jon Katzenbach, How “Fast Zebras” Navigate Informal Networks

I’m somewhat surprised that the idea of “fast zebras” didn’t get more traction.

My suspicion is that “Fast Zebras” threaten organizational hierarchies and, ultimately, leave hostile environments.

Environments often have effective antibodies to rogue elements like “Fast Zebras.”

The concept was also marketed towards organizational leaders. In my experience, most “Fast Zebras” can be found lurking within your line staff.

The project managers, organizational trainers, senior engineers, and business analysts who have worked on many projects, have cultivated strong relationships throughout the organization, and know where the bodies are stashed.

People in hierarchical positions of power, particularly in deeply conservative organizations, often need to maintain the hierarchy. Middle and senior managers are often hamstrung by having to “keep appearances” among their peers and seniors. These individuals are quickly reminded about their “place” and attempts to go around the formal hierarchy are ruthlessly punished. The punishment is often covert and long-lasting.

Individual contributors have a great oppotunity.

We are not entirely beholden to the structure.

We are beholden to results and getting the job done.

In many instances, we need to work around the structure to get work done.

As one of my project management colleagues not-so-gently reminded the Mucky Muck as he wrongly chided the line staff about not working across silos, “If I don’t work across silos, I can’t get anything done.”

Every other line staffer in the room nodded in agreement.

One of the engineers chimed in – “Your problem with silos is with the management. We work together all the time. Heck, half the time we don’t even talk to our managers because then we’d have to wait for the silos to work.”

The project manager and engineer are the “Fast Zebras.”

Are you?

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