The Scapegoat Mentality

This is a combination between a bad Jerry Maguire scene and the conclusions of many months of conversations around many topics (yes, I woke up at 3:30 AM from a bad dream about “scapegoat” execution and had to write it and share it; I may get fired but my boss is quite understanding since he is more into results and outcomes than into looking good doing things…)

As a stream of consciousness post I may get some parts wrong (and feel free to correct or change what I say in the comments; that’s why they are there); as an observational post it is going to be a summary of the past 6-12 months of my conversations, observations, research, and work.

Here it goes.

First, we are entering what has been called many names (investment years, executions years, GSD – getting “stuff” done moments, etc.) but all points to the same: we are done talking about things and having big ideas and “thought leadership” moments and we need to make things happens. As an analyst it is a scare stage: I make my chops as a thought leader pointing to the future and what may be and now it is about to become reality.  For the next 2-5 years (and maybe longer) and as long as we don’t screw up the economy somehow we are going to have banner years of investment and implementations (and this is not just in the enterprise software world where I live – everything in the world is coming around to be at the same level).  This is what paradigm shifts and transformation looks like at the beginning.

Second, the moment of big ideas is behind us and we are to the second part of the plan: get them done.  I had the pleasure to participate in an innovation summit last week and one of the speakers was from Amazon; as he was talking he reminded me of the guiding principle that Jeff Bezos always talks about: stubborn vision, flexible execution.  We are past vision – better be formed and in place.  If you don’t know what is going to look like in 36 months right now (and can recite it with your eyes closed and backwards in 10 languages) you are too late.  You will miss the boat and be a laggard instead of a mainstream or advanced adopter. Nothing anyone can do to fix that now – you either have it (because you invested the past 18-24 months preparing) or you don’t and will implement a half-baked vision and “shoot from the hip” as you go along (not always a good idea, unless you are an itinerant execution and have succeeded at that before – but even then, weaker model than knowing where you are going).

Third, you have 18-36 months to invest and you won’t see the results until then.  You may see small incremental results before then – but not the big picture all put together.  We keep repeating obsolete (I wanted to say stupid, but don’t want to insult lots of people) phrases (culture eats execution for breakfast, relentless pursuit, passionate driving, continuous improvement and some others) spun out by pundits looking for notoriety (or should I call them ninjas and rockstars? doesn’t matter – they are still nothing more than catchphrases and sound bites) but the bottom line is that transformation is hard and will take 2-3 years to see results (note: this is better than last time we did this and took 4-5 years; cycles have greatly improved – but still takes time).

Fourth, We love to follow leaders (the real ones, not the ones that speak in platitudes and sound bites and have no idea what they are doing – but look good doing it) but I see few of them.  For all the talk for transformation of marketplaces, workplaces, and schools – they are mostly an inch deep.  There are some serious changes that happened in our societies in the past few years (online communities changed the nature of the world, everyone is more empowered with more and better access to information and knowledge, traditional models have collapsed under their own complex weight, and more like that) but very few people who totally understand and have figured out a way to carve a path forward and have people follow them.

Fifth, this is inevitable.  We are at a crossroads in history and we need to make something happen.  There is time if you want to come from behind but no more if you want to lead the early charges.  You need to have a strategy mapped out, a timeframe built up, and your key players identified already — or continue working in execution and come in as a late mainstream or laggard (and miss the opportunities and rewards of being early to market).

You are reading this and nodding along, I hope, and then you say, “fine – I believe you… but what do you want me to do?

Don’t get an scapegoat mentality.

It is tempting to put someone without understanding of how the world changed (but that talks big words and good sounding catchphrases) in charge.  A large number of organizations have done that over the past 2-3 years.  The people leading the strategies have proven they could do it in the past, or have proven they could do something in the past, and have been placed in charge.  Because they did it in the past does not mean they can do it again.  Hopefully the qualifying discriminatory stages identified people who get and set a vision (the most critical part is knowing the metrics of success and the urge to iterate instead of arriving at an end-stage) and know how to move towards that.

In spite of my hopes I am finding more and more organizations with the wrong models for implementing their transformation.

I look at organizations today and I see three things that make me believe we are more into looking for scapegoats than executing:

  1. Vision is not stubborn or is not there, but sounds like it because “we are going to transform” became the mantra (but there is no effective strategy in place to do so)
  2. The organization is the same hierarchical model as before (and usually top heavy) instead of flat and flexible
  3. The end result is measured by revenue or dollars instead of effective change accomplished

When you get to the point where you think you had to be in 2-3 years one of three things will happen:

First, you will have succeeded to reach the vision you had and learned along the way many things about how to succeed, lead, and more importantly about how to change as you go with flexible execution.  Likely things won’t look like you wanted them 100%, but you will be close and the strategy will be embraced and adopted by everyone.  And you will know it is time to iterate and move to generation 2.0 or even 3.0 of what you are working on.

Second, you will have half succeeded but realized along the way what you missed and why and will improve the vision and strategy as you go along and come up with the second or third generation of the vision – but still be around to implement it and make it work – reaping (eventually) the rewards of achieving the goal – albeit a tad later (which is fine, as long as you iterate effectively instead of “pivoting”)

Third, you will need an scapegoat.  Someone needs to be responsible for the monumental failure stage you reached and whether you remain alive as an entity or collapse and your bones are picked by the organizations in one of the two previous end results, you will need scapegoat; someone has to take the blame for the results (in spite of the many platitudes we speak lately as mantras – fail fast, learn, etc. – we are still a society that needs to points to someone or something as a failure point; its innate).

This is where this post comes in: when you find yourself at that point where you need to point to your failure point and are looking for a scapegoat (which most likely is already identified from the beginning) take the moment to do things right then: don’t just blame, but go through the previous 1,400+ words and see what you missed along the way.

It wasn’t their fault you failed as an organization, there is no a single scapegoat capable of doing that which the organization as a whole couldn’t have done.  The main failure point (and I can tell you this way before you get there) was the stubborn adherence to a business model and organizational structure instead of embracing change and flexile models.  You have a scapegoat to blame for the lack of execution – but the indicators were there way before she or he took that spot: the organization was not ready to execute and no amount of cattle prodding or pushing will change that in a short time and without modifying things and iterating as you go along.

Scapegoats are overrated.  There is no satisfaction in knowing someone is responsible for the failure (in your mind).  You still failed.  Failing fast with a responsible party does not change the outcome – you still failed. Failure is failure.

Instead of looking for an scapegoat preemptively why don’t you focus on empowering each individual in the organization to do things as they see fit, stick to your stubborn vision, and use the empowerment you effected across the organization to succeed at your own pace.

Whereas I hope few people will have implemented an “scapegoat” mentality – I know it is not true.  My hope is to change a few of those with these and subsequent writings.

Welcome to “digital transformation” (but seriously, make the conversation go beyond digital).


4 Replies to “The Scapegoat Mentality”

  1. I like this: “the organization was not ready to execute and no amount of cattle prodding or pushing will change that in a short time and without modifying things and iterating as you go along.”

    So, how do you get the organization ready to execute? There’s a technology component, sure, but there’s an even more important culture and process component.


  2. short answer: change management mentality – what’s in it for me? how do i benefit? etc.

    longer answer: combination of the above you mentioned (process, tech, culture) within a strategic framework (goals, metrics, governance, execution, etc.) surrounded by a change management initiative.

    the longer answer is a book 🙂


  3. In today working environment it is only important to talk a lot but not to implement.
    Manager are afraid to go a new path as they worry about their own job – most of the day is spend to secure the job to be able to make the month expenses.
    Public listed companies need to increase turnover and profits how to achieve it talk the old path and cut some staff loose and reduce cost and buy some new smaller companies.
    There is no room for new ideas and creativity.
    As only profit and turnover count.
    There are the managers which work hard perform and talk little– these are the scapegoat in today working environment.


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