"Lord save us!" cried the duck. "How does it make up its mind?" – The Story of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting
The Pushmi Pullyu
The Story of Doctor Dolittle tells us that the Pushmi Pullyu was an animal that is now extinct, which means it’s not around any more.
Its genetic structure lives on in many businesses and relationships, however. Note the Pushmi Pullyu’s main characteristics:
- Two heads in opposing directions
- One very firm body
- No visible way of cleanly eliminating waste
Hugh Lofting wrote The Story in 1920. At this point, stovepiping and arbitrary specialization was a new art. So, for Lofting, the best way to solve the inherent conflicts in a Pushmi Pullyu structure was … stovepiping and specialization in the service of organization and civilization.
“I notice," said the duck, "that you only talk with one of your mouths. Can't the other head talk as well?"
"Oh, yes," said the pushmi-pullyu. "But I keep the other mouth for eating--mostly. In that way I can talk while I am eating without being rude. Our people have always been very polite."
This might have satisfied us when we were 7 and reading Dolittle books, but now it raises all sorts of obvious questions.
- What if the other mouth decides it wants to say something?
- How can an object with two distinct brains and skulls be an “I”?
- At a moment of panic, how do you not rip yourself in half?
- With two pairs of legs facing in opposite directions, don’t you find knee bending a bit challenging?
And we begin to see some of the inherent difficulties in an entity or organization that designs itself with multiple heads and structurally opposing viewpoints.
Stovepiped organizations are Pushmi Pullyu by nature. Cost centers that have opposing goals (funding, staffing, power, flexibility, subservience, etc.) create Pushmi Pullyu dynamics. Marketing squares off against Product Development. Manufacturing against sales.
Decisions are made not through collaboration of heads moving in the same direction – but are made by combat between groups that see themselves as the true “head” of the company and making no effort at alignment. Alignment would bring the other “head” in line with their “head” – thereby taking away their assumed importance.
The company calls itself "a company” but a little examination reveals that the company is a group of discrete adversarial units with no choice but to do business together.
One Very Firm Body
The Pushmi Pullyu’s physiology won’t even allow it to re-org into a forward facing unit. Its spine would snap.
Many companies, through years of policies, procedures and power moves, are hopelessly mired in Pushmi Pullyu architectures. We see policies:
- forbidding inter-group communication.
- making it difficult for staff to transfer within the company.
- overly restricting decision making to managers that centralize power.
- creating highly regimented rules around information dissemination.
The policies make organizations inflexible and destined for extinction - which means they soon won’t be around any more. Slight changes to the ecosystem of a rigid organization can yield exquisite damage.
The Pushmi Pullyu’s whimsical design is good for story telling and power hoarding, but it is not so good for sustainable management. The Pushmi Pullyu doesn’t even have the equipment to rid itself of waste.
Businesses are not immune from this seemingly impossible oversight. Many of the self-professed problems coming today from the big 3 auto makers are not dissimilar from those described in some of the companies in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great.
Scott Paper is one such case study of Collins’. The company was hopelessly mired in a Pushmi Pullyu dynamic. Product lines that were part of the company history but untenable in an overly commoditized marketplace. There was a lot of internal political capital in those existing products. Scott Paper’s leadership, however, knew that those products – while known and comfortable to the organization – were not an avenue for either stability or growth.
The waste eliminated here is massive. Political waste, policy waste, underperforming product line waste. That is Olympic medal winning waste elimination. The Big 3 Automakers, like Scott Paper before them, will need to not just re-org, but entirely re-invent their corporate physiology in order to survive.
To achieve this, goal alignment and transparency are paramount. Opposing heads cannot be part of the corporate architecture.
(This does not mean disagreement isn’t good, it does mean that institutionalized opposition will not be tolerated.)
Your So-Called Pushmi Pullyu Life
So, you are in a Pushmi Pullyu situation (or maybe more than one). What do you do?
The answer is simple. Subversion.
Nothing short of subversion will undo such deep structural divisions within a company. They were there before you and people don’t know enough to change them.
I vote for social subversion in the service of positive change.
Talk to people you’re not supposed to. Form alliances between you and “enemy” groups in the company. Work to create win-win funding opportunities for projects that involve both groups. Find ways to share staff. Increase intra-organizational involvement.
Find areas of obvious success, execute and be successful.
You will get flak for this.
Your alternatives: Acquiescence or Unemployment.
Blogged at Modus Cooperandi in Seattle, WA