Beyond Downton Abbey

By | January 17, 2014

Between the idea and the reality 

Between the conception and the creation
Falls the Shadow

T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

In Downton Abbey there’s Upstairs and Downstairs. In organizations of any size, however, there are, in addition to the Upstairs folks and the Downstairs folks, the Neither-Upstairs-Nor-Downstairs folks (aka middle management.) Let’s call them Mid-Stairs folks. This is not a great place to be because these unfortunate souls spend most of their time trying to persuade Downstairs that Upstairs really does knows what they’re doing while, at the same time, trying to persuade Upstairs that Downstairs are not a bunch of change-resistant slackers.

A number of years ago, a frustrated Mid-Stairs guy was giving me an account of a major change his company had undertaken. A significant shift in corporate direction had necessitated changes in organization structure, reporting relationships and operational processes. Upstairs had gone away for a weekend to a charming country inn – a setting amenable to thinking great thoughts – and returned with a new vision, a new mission statement and the broad-brushed strokes of a strategic plan. In Eliot’s terms, they came home with an idea and a conception from which the household was to create the reality. Things were not going well. The shadow had fallen and there was much thrashing about in this in-between land.

Over the course of what might loosely be described as a business career, I’ve found myself occupying positions Downstairs, Mid-Stairs and Upstairs and have developed some sense of where and how things can go wrong. (I blush, but I’ll admit to also having spent weekends thinking great thoughts in country inns and returning determined to change the world.) Here’s how it goes. Upstairs isn’t stupid – well they can be, but for the purposes of this modest essay let’s assume they’re not. We all know that’s there’s no perfection this side of the grave – whether there is beyond the grave is a matter for speculation. We’ll give our Upstairs credit for knowing this as well. And knowing this, they will rigorously assess both the strengths and weaknesses of the positions they take around matters of new directions, new structures, new processes and, perhaps, even new culture. In a nutshell, they undertake the change project in the full and certain knowledge that while the new will not be perfect it will put the enterprise on a significantly better track.

But then comes the Town Hall Meeting with all its bells, whistles and Power Point presentations (or, perhaps, just a Memo to All Staff) where Upstairs presents the results of their efforts to the household staff. And here – this is important – we should read presents as sells. Specifically, what are sold are the strengths of the plan. There’s no mention of its weaknesses. Let’s face it, you don’t generally feature weaknesses when making your change-for-the-better pitch.

Here’s where the shadow falls. The household isn’t stupid. They’re the future, right? They’re the next generation of leaders, right? Well that’s what the president says in his annual report or her Christmas message. (OK: seasonal message.) But as implementation begins, the weaknesses become apparent. How could they not? They’re part of the package; they’re the trade-offs that upstairs have made to achieve the overall objectives of the redirection and reorganization. Downstairs, inevitably, are quick to point out these disadvantages to Mid-Stairs. “Didn’t those guys anticipate this? What were they thinking?” At the same time, of course, Mid-Stairs have Upstairs getting on their case for not getting on with the job. And there Mid-Stairs find themselves; the ham in the sandwich, feeling themselves to be the only ones who get it that the future is in the big picture (God bless Upstairs for that!) but also know that the devil is in the detail (God help Downstairs with that.)

What have I learned from this? A couple of things. The first is that management training and development courses ought to prepare Mid-Stairs for functioning in a non-rational and often irrational world. Put another way, they ought to aim at helping them develop their improvisational skills. There’s more to performing effectively on this gig than learning how to set objectives, make plans and monitor progress. (Maybe I’ll find time to go into this in a later Random Riff.) The second is that Upstairs develop a greater appreciation of the nature of Shadowland; a better sense of what it means to get from the idea to the reality; the concept to the reality. Leaders of jazz ensembles, after all, don’t merely call a tune and walk off the stand. (Maybe there’s another Random Riff here as well.)

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