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.