Abandoning the Obsolete and Unproductive: A Difficult But Necessary Task

A fruit tree grows stronger and fuller when it is pruned periodically. In a long-out-of-print book entitled The Folklore of Management, Clarence B. Randall, a retired president of Inland Steel, expressed this thought most elegantly:

The world around, hearty men who make a living by harvesting the fruits of the soil know when and how to use the pruning knife. They have no more useful working tool...whether it be a French peasant who gives daily, almost hourly, care to his precious two hectares of sun drenched hillside soil in Burgundy, or the cherry grower of Michigan or the owner of an apple orchard in the Virginia, he preserves the quality of his product by his skill in removing deadwood...

... the significant thing about his operation, however, is that he works at it all the time...Never does he rush out in terror to lay about him with an ax, slashing indiscriminately right and left...he is steady and consistent about the whole process and keeps constantly at it…in the spring following a bumper crop, when he sure he has a vintage product, he does the same amount of trimming as after one of those sad years when the hail damage has all but ruined him...

The Message is Clear

Every enterprise, business or nonbusiness, must constantly abandon the obsolete and the unproductive. Every organization is likely to be loaded down with yesterday's promises. These include activities and programs that no longer contribute; the ventures that looked so enticing when started, but now, five years later, are still unproductive.

The best therapy for any organization from the point of view of performance is to purge itself of mediocrities. Systematic sloughing off of yesterday frees energies and resources. It makes available the people and funds required for new things.

Why Peter F. Drucker's Ideas Still Matter

The late Peter F. Drucker identified the key management challenge of the 21st century as leading change and believed that the first question to ask is: "What should we abandon?" He realized abandoning yesterday is excruciatingly difficult.

Modern organizations must be capable of change. Indeed, they must be able to initiate change, that is, innovation. It is essential to move scarce and expensive resources from areas of low productivity and non-results to areas where there are opportunities for achievement and contribution. This requires abandonment of the obsolete and unproductive.

Drucker observed:

"Maintaining yesterday is difficult and time-consuming and therefore always commits the institution's scarcest and most valuable resources—and above all, its ablest people—to non-results... organizational inertia always pushes for continuing what we are already doing...

...organizations are always in danger of being overwhelmed by yesterday's tasks and being rendered sterile by them... An organization, whatever its objectives, must therefore be able to get rid of yesterday's tasks and thus free its energies and resources for new and more productive tasks."

Continuity vs. Change

Drucker's central theme involved the never-ending battle of continuity vs. change. He repeated over and over again that an organization's most able people tend to be committed to yesterday's tasks, which means they are not available to create tomorrow. Every strategic plan stresses what should be done. But Drucker reasoned that the initial emphasis of a strategic plan must focus on what to stop doing.

Weeding out the nonproductive activity garden is as important in "running human resources like a business" as is in the example given by Randall. One sobering method of avoiding putting too much effort into the soil bed of yesterday's activities and programs is to raise the Drucker question, "If we were not presently doing this or that activity would we risk going into it today?"

Shortly after Jack Welch became CEO of General Electric in 1981, Business Week magazine reported, "He sat down with Drucker at the company's New York headquarters... Drucker posed two questions that arguably changed the course of Welch's tenure: 'If you weren't already in a business, would you enter it today?’ he asked...'and if the answer is no, what are you going to do about it?'"

Those questions led Welch to a slew of abandonment decisions and to realize that"maintaining what no longer works draws your most valuable resources away from your number one job, creating tomorrow."

Welch reinvented General Electric and is credited with allocating resources on the right results. And in the process, Welch made General Electric into one of America's most successful organizations.

Why is Abandonment So Difficult?

Without doubt, abandoning yesterday is painfully difficult but necessary. Yesterday is comfortable. By contrast, the new and different always produce new problems. Custodial managers nurture yesterday far too long.

In short, it boils down to familiarity with and sentimentality for what already exists.

Organizations that are incapable of abandoning old and tired programs and activities are unlikely to make the new happen. Just asking the question, "What should we abandon or de-emphasize?" will force thinking and actions that can significantly improve operations and productivity.