When I was around 10 years old, I watched a “black and white” film on the BBC that for some reason remained a lingering memory all my life even though I cannot remember the title or the actors.
The story was about a group of aristocrats and their butler who went on a cruise, the ship ran into trouble and started to sink, the group escaped by lifeboat and ended up on a deserted island.
The butler was the only person who had any survival skills and over time roles reversed, with the butler taking charge and giving the orders and the various aristocrats carrying them out. The women in the party would compete ( this film was made in the 50’s) for the affection of the butler, he became the respected chief of the group.
One day a ship was seen sailing by and spotted those on the island, they sent a rescue boat to collect the party. Seeing that the people would be rescued, the butler discarded his chieften outfit and quickly dressed in his butler clothes (which he had not worn since his first few days on the island ). Reverting immediately in form and in behaviour as a submissive man-servant of the group, the group in turn treated him as a servant.
No member of the group acknowledged to the rescue party that it was the butler who had kept them alive all this time.
I remember at the time feeling quite sorry for the Butler who had evidently done a great job leading the team.
Thinking about that film today, there was another angle that was less obvious at the time and less to do with a commentary on the British class system . The aristocrats were unable to adapt ( at least fast enough to stay alive) to such a major change in their environment, they were the wrong people to lead. The ways of working that they had taken for granted were no longer relevant in this new world.
In his seminal book, “The innovators dilemma” Clayton Christiansen touches on on organisations failing to change and survive not because they were irrational, but because they deployed rational and successful ways of working to a context where the environment was changing in a way neither their customers nor themselves appreciated – until it was too late.
Imagine an organisation which has had a long run of success – it has all the leadership and processes in place to optimise and grow. It has survived through various economic cycles. It has barriers to entry and competitive advantages that it has built over time. Past results show rising profits.
Is it possible that over time the leadership of this organisation have become a bit like those aristocrats? Different in that they are hardworking. Similar in taking for granted the environment they find themselves in, unquestioning of the ways of working, a shared view of what and who is important and how things work.
How would such a leadership team respond to a fundamental change in its industry with new entrants cannibalising its margins ? More importantly if they are best placed to respond, why did they not foresee that the “barbarians” would turn up and prepare earlier ?
The greatest risk successful organisations run is that they create a culture that is far too adapted to the status quo and their historical success makes them subconsciously arrogant and less likely listen to contrary views, even though the self perception is one of open mindedness and humility.
When the change comes, as it inevitably will- it is these organisations who will find it most difficult to adapt, precisely because the have been so successful in the past and despite having on paper ;greater advantages than the competition.