Category Archives: balance

Organizational Chemotherapy

One of the most hackneyed, trite and stale topics to talk about in business is change. Of course that is all the more reason for me to talk about it. We all know we need to change. This is a given. I do not think there is one person out there that could not identify something associated with their occupation, or some aspect of what they do, that needs to be changed. If that is truly the case, I think the greater question associated with change is not what to change, but how and when to change it.

I recently read an article which featured a discussion with Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA basketball team and erstwhile member of the board on the television show “Shark Tank”. I am neither a particular fan of the Mavericks (I prefer the Dallas Stars hockey team), nor do I watch the Shark Tank, but I was intrigued by the article. Mark Cuban is known for speaking his mind quite often, or at least he appears to speak his mind quite often based on the media coverage he receives, and upon first blush this particular article didn’t seem to be any more important than any of the other myriad of times that he has chosen to speak up.

I guess I speak up quite often too, but since I neither own a professional sports franchise, or appear regularly on TV, there are not nearly as many media articles that cover what I have to say or write. Therefore, I seem to have to write my own.

I guess having a couple billion dollars can influence the media’s opinion of you. Go figure.

Mark Cuban, while appearing on CNN’s “New Day,” morning infotainment, talk show and celebrity-fest referred to President Donald Trump as “political chemotherapy” for the system. He then went on to explain the genesis of the term was from one of his “smart friends” who said:

“Mark, I’ve voted for politicians my entire life. Do you know what the definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So I voted for Donald Trump. Is he poisonous in a lot of respects? Yeah, this is out chemotherapy. We hope he’s going to change the political system. And if that’s the way you’re evaluating Donald Trump, he’s doing a phenomenal job.” (

I am in no way or form going to get into any discussions regarding politics or the relative values, or lack of values of any politician. I am merely interested in the term “political chemotherapy”.

Using this example, I would extend Cuban’s example to the professional environment in that when an organization or business continues to do the same thing and apply the same process over and over again, and does not seem capable of doing anything else, but continues on hoping for a different result, it would seem that it would also become time for what I would call organizational chemotherapy.

And indeed, we often see that this as the case when it is finally recognized that there is a need for a change of direction within the organizational system. This change usually comes in the form of a new business or business unit leader, usually from outside of the stricken organization, who is brought in. Since they are not beholden to, or vested in the existing processes or structures, it is their role and responsibility to be the change agent, much like chemotherapy, that changes the way the existing business system is operating.

I do not seek to minimize or reduce the hardship that people must go through when they are forced to endure chemotherapy. Everyone I have spoken to who has gone through it, and everything I have read about it indicates that it is as an unpleasant process to endure as can be imagined. Having to ingest a proscribed list of toxic and poisonous chemicals into one’s system on a regular basis for the purpose of eradicating items that if left unchecked will destroy the system, cannot be thought of in any sort of lighter terms.

I am however interested in the analogy that was drawn by Mark Cuban’s friend to the political process, and the similar analogy that can be drawn to the business process and organization.

It seems in both the political system, as well as in the business system, it sometimes takes the injection, or introduction of something that can best be described as a known toxin into the system to get the system to change. This usually occurs when it is recognized that if left unchecked the system can become, or may have already become somewhat compromised, and are unable to correct themselves. The inertia of the organizational and business process in these cases, once compromised are almost impossible to correct from inside the system.

Almost all business systems are risk averse. It doesn’t matter what the organization says. It doesn’t matter if the organization claims a culture that rewards risk. Almost all business processes are created to reduce risk. And one of the greatest perceived risks to business is change.

Change in business requires the system to do something it hasn’t done before. It can be small or it can be large. Regardless, it will be resisted. Over time the resistance to change will become ingrained into the system. The resistance to change can almost become a process unto itself. This point is usually achieved when the stakeholders in the status quo structures and processes have neither the authority or inclination to “buck the system”.

The perception in the organization evolves that the return for the risk of challenging the system is lower than the potential penalty for the continued less that optimal performance under the current methodologies.

This is the point in time for the organization, when it will probably take nothing less than business chemotherapy to force the system to change. There will probably be both good and bad effects associated with it. A stable if underperforming system will become at least temporarily unstable. There will be uncertainty and risk for the members of the organization as they must change what they do and adapt to the changes being imposed, or face exiting the system as part of the corrective solution.

One of the side effects of organizational chemotherapy is that like its sourcing namesake, it doesn’t specifically correct the system. It is actually designed to remove something that is detrimental to the system. While similar, they are in fact two distinctly different actions. It hopefully allows the treated system to return to its normal, more healthy performance level.

I think we have all seen high profile instances of organizational chemotherapy. I have actually lived through one, where a CEO was brought in specifically to change and remove a “good old boy” culture that was hampering the growth and evolution of the organization. It seemed he was successful beyond even the board of director’s expectations in that he seemed to alienate everyone including the board that hired him, and he genuinely seemed to enjoy those aspects of his role.

The issue was that once the culture had changed, there was not a new beneficial system and process available to put in place to replace the old one. The CEO knew how to remove what was unwanted, but did not know how to replace it with what was desired. The company began to falter and performance began to fail. The board then had to step in again and replace the chemotherapy agent with a new CEO who rapidly built back up a new culture based on merit and performance. The company then took off.

The progression was one of starting with an organizational system where performance was secondary to “who you knew” or were politically aligned with; to one where it was essentially toxic to be associated with the old system and regime, but again where performance was secondary; to one where performance and merit were moved to the forefront.

It took approximately three years from when the chemotherapy CEO was installed to when he was replaced. And this represented three distinct organizational systems and processes. It was also interesting that as the solution to the first cultural problem, he only knew how to remove the problem. He did not have the capability to implement the desired final solution for the organization. He focused on his strength which was to remove the undesirable aspects of the original organization. It took someone else with a different skill set to rebuild the new system.

Organizations have a tendency to want to drift into comfortable, known and reduced risk structures and processes. It takes careful stewardship and an eye on the future by the organizational leader to continue to drive a balance between acceptable risk, challenge and new directions, and the continued implementation of risk reducing processes and decisions.

Regardless of how hard an organization tries, it continues to be exceedingly difficult to violate or even change the Risk-Return economic equation. As an organization constrains itself with the drive to reduce risk, it also by necessity also reduces its related opportunity for gaining an acceptable return. Invariably the solution to this issue is for the organization to try and implement even more of the constraining systems and processes to address the new issues, which in turn creates even more organizational drag.

At some point it becomes apparent that a chemotherapy type solution will be required to change the self-defeating process constraints. As shown in the above example, organizational chemotherapy may solve the current problem, but it needs to be closely monitored, because correcting the current set of problems is in many instances not the same as creating the desired final solution and system.


If you have anything to do with electronic communications or media, you have probably heard about or possibly have already have seen the video by Simon Sinek on millennials in the workplace. It is very good. If you haven’t seen it, you can see it here:

There seems to be an ever increasing amount written, or in this case videoed in business about the most recent generation to enter the work force, millennials, and how businesses must change and adapt to deal with them. With this in mind it seems that I should be no different and add my input into the conversation. However, I do think I may have a different take on the situation.

Before we go too much further, let’s do a little generational definition work. There are at the current time predominantly three generations working today: Baby Boomers – who are defined as those who were born after the mid-1940s and prior to the early 1960s (the youngest of whom are now in their mid-fifties and approaching the end of their working period), Generation X – who are defined as those born after the early 1960s and into the mid-1970s (the youngest of whom are now well into their forties and are entering their prime working period), and Millennials – There are no precise dates for when this group starts or ends, but most demographers and researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and ending birth years ranging from the mid-1990s to early 2000s.

The oldest millennials are now reaching their thirties and have been in the work force for some time, while the youngest are either preparing to enter or have just entered the workforce.

The reason I bring up this generation definition and demographic information is to set something of a baseline when discussing all the generalizations that are being made. We all like to sort things into groups as it makes it easier for us to model and respond to group behaviors as they affect the business performance. Although individual traits can vary widely across a demographic, I will try to adhere to those demographic traits that seem to be widely accepted as baselines.

As an aside, I have often said that demographics can be broken down into only two groups of people in the world: Those that like to divide people into two groups and those that don’t. But I digress….

In Sinek’s video discussion he points out many of the generational characteristics of the millennials. He also states several times that it is not their fault that the millennials believe and behave as they do. They are the products of their parents, schools, societies and times. They were taught that they as individuals matter and that their opinions and output count regardless of accuracy or being correct. They were the generation that got “participation trophies” in competitions when they did not win. They now enter the business world at the standard entry level positions and expect the same sort of attention and acclimation that have received throughout their past regardless of their performance.

In short, their baby boomer and generation-x parents gave them unrealistic expectations of how the business world would work, and now so much is being written (and videoed) about how the business world is going to have to change and adapt to these somewhat unrealistic expectations.


It is quite possible that perhaps I missed the same sort of business workplace demographic analysis associated with expectations of the baby boomers (who still make up the largest demographic in the workplace) or generation-x as they entered the workplace. I suppose it was just expected that they would have to adapt to the environment they had if they expected to be successful.

I think it is safe to say that everyone wants to matter, and have an effect on the business or organization that they work for. I think most people want to feel and be fulfilled by the work that they do. This has been a standard for all new hires from all generations. I don’t think that the millennial generation is the first generation that expected and felt entitled to these roles without first proving themselves.

What is interesting to me is that it seems that the millennial generation is the first generation that business is actually contemplating changing its order of things in order to better accommodate these expectations. At least there is a significant amount being written about how business should, may, possibly change in order to better accommodate the coming millennial workforce generation.

As a brief example, in the past the workforce migrated from the cities to the suburbs to better accommodate their home and lifestyle choices. They did this knowing they would have to commute to work. Over time some businesses migrated out of the city centers to better accommodate their work forces (and truth be told, to reduce the costs associated with expensive urban center floor space). This migration occurred across decades.

There is now a widespread belief that millennials are a key factor in the new gentrification of many urban areas, and as a result some businesses and organizations are contemplating migrating back to the same urban centers that they left. This is being contemplated in order to better accommodate and attract a portion of the workforce who by all measurements are the most junior and currently least productive components.

To be fair I think that there are several other factors that are also coming into play when we look at some of the changes that organizations are both contemplating and implementing. It is possible that some of these changes have been instigated as a result of the millennial influx into the workforce, and some of them may have already been in process and are just attributed to the millennials based on the timing of the change and the generational influx into the workforce.

The millennial generation is the first generation in the workforce that grew up in the connected world. They are video games, personal computers, and cellular phones. They are immediate feedback and immediate gratification. They have seen the rise of virtual offices and have watched their parents work from home. I have a couple of kids that are millennials and I watch them and I learn from them and their friends.

They are also, as Simon Sinek said in his now famous video, a generation that has come by this feeling of entitlement naturally. Their baby boomer and generation-x parents were determined that their millennials would not fail. Sometimes this was accomplished through the efforts of the children. Many times it was through the efforts of the parents to reduce the obstacles and lower the bar to assure clearance.

The result is an expectation of success, or at the very least accommodation of their expectations regardless of the effort expended. They have been told how good they are for so long that they believe it. They have been given trophies for playing regardless of whether they have won or not, to the point where they believe their participation is valuable in and of itself.

I think that there needs to be recognized that there is a symbiotic need between the millennial generation workforce and the business organizations of today. Millennials will need to work to survive and organizations will need millennials in their workforce to pursue and grow their markets. If organizations make drastic changes solely to accommodate millennials they risk alienating the current majority of their workforce who are not millennials. If millennials do not learn and rapidly come to grips with the idea that there may not be participation trophies and progress can be based on competitive merit, they too will face a very bumpy acclimatization to business.

The speed of change has increased. What once took decades can no longer be expected to take decades. However, business still requires a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders. What makes sense to the majority of the business at large in general makes sense for the business. Business and organizational change based on millennial matriculation into the workforce should be expected as their demographic increases over time.

On the other hand, I await the next wave of business articles and documentation on how the millennials are going to have to change and adjust their habits and expectations in order to participate, let alone succeed in the organizations that they enter. I don’t think that business can be expected to change to the level to wholly meet the expectations that millennials have. There will need to be some sort of middle ground established so that neither the business nor the millennial will be overly disappointed or disillusioned in what they get.

Be Cool

I mentioned in an earlier post that two of the essential traits for a successful leader to have are being opinionated on, and having a passion for your business. The counterbalancing trait that will also be required is composure. Being passionate and opinionated can make you a strong and decisive leader. Lacking composure will make you appear to be a rash and foolish manager.


It is always better to act in a measured way than to react in any way. Coming off as a hot head will greatly decrease your effectiveness as a leader. Maintaining your composure in the face of difficulties will present a much stronger image and leadership trait for your team to follow.


Maintaining a calm demeanor while demonstrating a passion for your business is a difficult balance to achieve and maintain. The key items I try and keep in mind are:


  • It’s important but it isn’t life and death
  • This too shall pass……
  • We’re supposed to be having fun here


I just wish I could get better at it faster.