Sorry…But Silver Bullets Don’t Exist.

“Partial Strength Produces General Weakness” — Sir Robert Seepings, 1767–1840.

I came across this quote while reading J.E. Gordons book entitled “Structures, Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down”. I have to admit, I’m a big Elon Musk fan and this book was on his top reading list, so of course I ordered it. The statement addresses the principle of stress concentrations — that can ultimately lead to a structural failure. Perhaps a crack in a foundation effecting the cosmetics of a tiled floor, or perhaps a skyscraper falling to the ground.

The day grows short, let’s dive right in.

A structure can be put under an unplanned ‘stress concentration’ from a hole or crack in its materials, which essentially overloads its ability to remain intact. However, less intuitively, a structure can also be subjected to a threatening stress concentration by adding stronger material to only a portion of its structure. Perhaps a partial thick plate of armor on a weakened ship hull. Or perhaps a new cloth patch sewn unto an old garment (this example is likely familiar!). In either case (crack or patch) the stress distribution changes across the structure and can apply acute, often whelming, force against the structure. The multiplication factor (which is beyond the discussion of this article) can be exponential. This is what the statement “partial strength produces general weakness” refers to. Adding something new/stronger to an existing structure makes it weaker.

If you’re like me, your mind is already wandering and wondering…does this principle apply to organizations? I believe it does, and it’s implications can be devastating…

In an effort to strengthen an organizations performance, it is common for companies to make disproportionate investments in a single functional department to invoke change. Whereas making balanced investments across interconnected departments can produce a positive (level up) impact, what happens when investments are concentrated in a single department — for a ‘silver bullet’ effect? For example, what would happen if top marketing all-stars and an increased advertising budget were bolted onto a below average functional organization? The new marketers might have brilliant ideas on new customer engagement strategies, product iterations, and aggressive pipeline management…but…the head of sales doesn’t have funding for a strong sales team, the CFO is struggling to make the accounts payable deadlines and the VP of Product Development doesn’t have an updated R&D lab to develop the new products.

Intuitively the marketing department will get frustrated (leading to turn over), but what about the organizational structure itself? Was it better off before or after the disproportionate investment in marketing came to “shake things up”. I’d argue the organization is left worse off than before the investment.

First, the investment might have set expectational standards that are not to be envied but rather despised. Their peers might look at the marketing departments track record and become dismissive of their ideas. Worse yet, their peers might look at the marketing departments track record and stop sharing their own ideas. The shadow of a “golden child department” can be a very cold place to work and live. If Moneyball taught us anything, it’s that a cohesive team is more productive than the efforts of any single all-star player or department (thanks Brad).

Second, team work across incumbent workers may stifle or even stop. Insecurity can be a dangerous moderator. One of the most significant lessons we have learned from professional sports is that confidence is an incredible enabler. An unbreakable record is only unbreakable until it’s broken (Tony Hawk 900)!

Lastly, when the incremental investment fails to produce the desired results, the fall-out can be dangerous to morale. All the hype from the investment in a ‘silver bullet’ department can quickly turn into sour-grapes. The old cliché statement that ‘it’s better to have loved and lost’ than to have ‘never loved at all’ simply doesn’t apply to organizations.

So What Does this Mean?

Be careful of interjecting large investments into a single department in an organization. It can cause more harm than good. The frame of the race car needs to be able to support the engine, and you can’t skimp on a proper steering wheel! If you’re the owner, controlling shareholder, or CEO of an organization and seeking productive and sustainable organizational change, be sure to start with your top management team and make balanced investments from there.

For those all-stars out there that are being solicited by underperforming companies…be careful when accepting lucrative deals to join a struggling team. If you’re part of a single department investment strategy, you’re essentially being bolted onto the side of weakened ship hull and you might be headed down a path of unproductive frustration.

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