Is your organization like the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

pisaI had the good fortune to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy during a recent trip. First, this is an amazing sight … not just of the tower, but the nearby cathedral, baptistery and cemetery.  Even though the famous site is overrun with tourists, it is definitely worth a visit. One of the things that interested me about the tower is its history and amazing, perhaps scary, parallels to organizational transformation. The short history of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (ala my limited understanding) includes the following highlights. Pisa was a dominant sea power. Part of the display of its wealth was the building of these four buildings which include the cemetery, cathedral, baptistery and tower. All of these structures were built on ground that the builders knew was sandy, unstable and unlikely to withstand the weight of the structure. But, they went ahead and built these buildings anyway. The other buildings were wide enough to be OK with some tilt. In fact, the baptistery lists 10 feet which is noticeable, but survivable. But, unfortunately, not the tower. As the builders constructed the tower, they got up to the fourth level when someone noticed that – “Uh oh – it is tilting a bit.” What had happened was that they had built the foundation too shallow and the south side of the tower began to sink under the weight of the building. No one seems to know quite why they stopped work on the tilting tower then, but it wasn’t worked on for another century. At that time, the new architect came up with the idea of fixing the appearance of the lean (and hopefully the actual lean) by making the supporting pillars on the lower side longer and the upper side shorter so the tower from the 4th level up, leans back toward the up side. This ill-advised strategy may have made the tower look better, but it meant that the builders now believed that they could build more levels, which they did, creating more weight and making the lean worse. Again, the builders stopped work for about a century The next architect did the same thing – made it look straighter by tinkering with the size of the columns, which led to more levels, more weight and more tilt. Focusing on the appearance of doing well actually made the problem worse. This process lasted until a few decades ago when it became clear that the tower was close to toppling and would fall if the foundation wasn’t fixed. The problem was that the south side foundation which is the side that was sinking was so far gone that it couldn’t be saved by fixing the south side of the tower. So what they did was remove some of the sand under the north side so it would sink more evenly. Hmmm. To summarize:

    • -The builders knew that the foundation was problematic but they were arrogant and went ahead and built it anyway
    • -The shaky foundation showed up pretty early in the construction but instead of fixing the foundation they tried to make it appear OK – at great expense of time, money and resources
    • -Fixing the appearance made the situation worse so they tried to fix the appearance again – again at great cost and time
    • -Again, focusing only the external appearance and not the internal structure just made the situation worse
    • -Nearly four centuries later they finally attempted to fix the foundation, not by repairing what was no longer repairable, but by accepting that stabilizing was sufficient
As you can see, this is an astounding metaphor for most organizations’ transformational initiatives.  Thinking of the sandy soil as the equivalent of a market, it may look stable on the surface but markets are inherently turbulent. Putting more and more weight on a particular market (i.e. narrowing the focus to that market) makes an organization vulnerable to shifts. Typically, when highly successful organizations realize that their market is shifting some, they put more effort into their current markets, trying to shore up their position. Then, when that strategy doesn’t work, they try to make their situation appear better, which hides the real problems. As the problems get worse, they spend more time and money trying to fix the appearance, but not really trying to fix the substance. Finally, they realize that their business is about to topple over and, in a panic, they try to stabilize – often with layoffs – during what is often a lost cause situation. If they succeed in stabilizing they are at a much reduced position in the market. These troubled organizations can limp along for a long time, but they are nowhere near what they were or could have been if they had focused on building a good foundation in the first place.  While this analogy may seem a little hokey, it’s a very accurate description of many organizations with which we have worked. They often ask for our advice early on, and we always say “take the time now to build a sound foundation for the future.” However, 98% of the time, they say they are too busy and have to maintain the current business so they can’t look at the foundation. Instead, they create lots of PowerPoint slide presentations about their strategies, but don’t really do anything. Eventually, they come back to us and say: we need to fix the foundation, but we are in such dire straits that there isn’t time, so let’s just get stabilized – always after layoffs. It is sad because it is so preventable Is your organization a Leaning Tower of Pisa or are you taking the time and making the investment now to build a solid foundation for future growth?]]>

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