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Symptoms of complacency in business: How OD practitioners can assist and overcome associated issues

I was chatting with my colleague and peer Sean Kelly recently, drawing on his 25+ years of experience of OD consultancy and business strategy, as we discussed how to recognize the symptoms of poor organizational health, how we can diagnose and overcome these issues as practitioners. 

“One of the biggest problems we come across in organizations, whether they are corporate or privately-owned organizations, is complacency. If people are making money, it tends to hide inefficiencies, and those inefficiencies can multiply over a period of time. So if you’re expanding as an organization, you’ll find that those problematic areas are multiplied as you grow.”  

Sean was discussing how complacency comes in many forms and what we may think of as complacency is not always the case. While here he is discussing how ‘business-as-usual’ operations can lead to complacency (as opposed to a business that is aware and actively striving towards new marketplace goals), complacency can also occur when employees are limited in their understanding, be that through communication or training. This limiting of understanding restricts the capacity for innovation and adding value as employees may not be able to fully use their talents, therefore leading to a form of complacency.

But if complacency is such a silent invader into businesses and organizations, what can OD practitioners do? How can we help businesses recognize the onset of these challenges? 

The most important thing is having the right processes and structures in place. Even after delivering a milestone project or achieving a big client win, you should be looking back at it. What went well? What could we improve on? What are the next steps we take? What learnings can we extract and apply from this experience? These sorts of questions and feedback conversations should be held throughout the whole organization, to ensure everyone is aware of their own performance and role, and to provide them with strategic direction for the future. Leaders should speak with their teams right down to delivery level, and not have these conversations sequestered within the rooms of the c-suite in order to leverage support and trust in potential change. 

Using tools like a SWOT analysis here can be very valuable in creating the right kind of scenario for feedback, development, and growth. OD practitioners can help facilitate and engage with staff of organizations to ensure the conversations are productive, useful, and deliver meaningful feedback.

“It’s really important that you have all the correct fundamental things in place, because it’s like building a house on a weak foundation and expecting it to hold two storeys. That’s the same with a business, your systems have to be adequate, at the very least, your people have to be trained, they’ve got to know what the goals are, what the strategy is.”

Discourage complacency from taking root in your organization by keeping an eye on the market and your competitors. If the sector is moving in a direction that you aren’t yet exploring, it’s worth taking the time to see if it’s right for your business and finding out how you can adopt new ways of working. A business that is constantly trying to adapt and evolve is one more likely to attract exciting new talent who want to work in a diverse and forward-thinking business.

“You’re complacent to the point that you’re running a good operation, you’re making profits in a certain sphere of that operation, but you’ve got to look at what’s happening out there, and say ‘why are people going down that track, do I need to be looking at that’, and that’s what so many organizations fail to do – it’s simple.” 

OD practitioners can help with recognising problems associated with complacency, and they can also suggest tools and methods for overcoming it and prevention in future. Understand why complacency might be happening, how it can be overcome, how to keep your workforce motivated and engaged, and how to keep turning a profit while moving forwards as a business. 

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