Will you please stop playing organisational Whack-a-Mole?


“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

 Fire fighting problems is such a last century leadership strategy! Hip modern leaders are instead playing organisational Whack A Mole. You know, that fairground game where feisty little rodents appear randomly through one of nine holes. Your task is to hit the emerging mole hard with a large mallet and in doing so rack up points. They come out thick and fast. You get so obsessed with scoring that you see absolutely nothing of the world around you until the bell goes for the end of the game. For that few minutes you’re oblivious to anything else. It’s as if you had a pre-frontal lobotomy!

This is nothing! The daunting challenge for 21st Century leaders, are the thousands of metaphorical holes and moles facing them. Some are problems but some are opportunities. Some in fact are not even moles but red herrings. The holes keep moving and sometimes multiple moles appear simultaneously at the same hole!. It can be tricky to see the difference between a good mole that needs feeding, and a bad one that needs whacking. Failure to appreciate the difference between the two, and acting too late or even too soon, can have catastrophic unforeseen consequences on your organisation.

It doesn’t really matter if you’re a company CEO, a university vice-chancellor (President), or lead a charitable foundation, there are more moles and more holes for them to leap out from than you can cope with on your own. Sometimes you don’t see the moles or their holes at all! How the heck are you expected to keep up before your brains fry?


“There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.”

Lyndon B. Johnson

21st Century problems facing leaders

Here are just five of the most regularly reported problems facing leaders in the 21st Century.

  1. Uncertainty – financial, economic and political
  2. Profitability versus Sustainability
  3. Talent – attracting and retaining
  4. Rapid Technological change
  5. Globalisation

These are all dizzyingly complex issues, each one beyond the detailed understanding of any individual person, or even an executive team operating in isolation. Running a successful organisation of any size is a team sport. The bigger the team, the bigger the overall grasp of situations. The more connected the team, the more effective they become.

Surmounting complexity requires that information of the highest standard and greatest depth and breadth is acquired; preferably in real-time. This knowledge has to be converted into understanding which in turn, services wise decision-making. Making wiser decisions, quicker and more often, certainly more often than your competitors, increases your likelihood of success by any measure, no matter what your area of activity.

This is what a “High Performing Culture” looks like and is typical of highly successful organisations creating market-leading results. An increasingly deep well of research confirms that cultural quality precedes business success as measured by financial criteria including EBITDA, sales growth and profit. Whilst other non-financial indicators of success are equally dependent on the quality and strength of an organisation’s culture, and include reduced absenteeism, customer loyalty, enhanced engagement and motivation.

When I talk of cultural performance, I mean the clarity of an organisation’s purpose, its strategy, teamwork, empowerment, customer relationships and the behaviours of the people that live within the culture. Beneath this visible picture lie our beliefs and assumptions that influence behaviours and interactions. Perhaps surprisingly, cultural performance can be measured reliably by assessing the perceptions of the people who work within it, and the people the organisation serves.

The Denison Organisational Survey (DOCS) has for more than two decades helped clients understand, at a fundamental level, the complexities of their culture and how that links directly to their real-world measures of success. Moreover, as it is validated and benchmarked to 1080 organisations that have already used the DOCS, clients can assess their position in relation to competitors across 12 different cultural indices. Equipped with this knowledge, clients are able to have honest and open conversations intended to construct a targeted strategy for enhancing their culture. Armed with this competitive insight they significantly improve their likelihood of increased real-world success.

What clients say about Denison's Cultural Survey

High Performance Cultures free people to unleash more of their hidden capacity to excel. People who live in this kind of culture feel more influential, go above and beyond what is asked of them, and volunteer observations and insights that pre-empt problems and trigger adaptive innovations. The proven pay-offs include, but are not restricted to, reduced absenteeism, greater engagement and enhanced productivity, all of which enhance brand value and eventually commercial uplifts.

The success or failure of a merger or acquisition depends to a great extent on recognising the crucial importance of culture, the valid differences between newly fused organisations, and in creating a viable strategic plan for respectful integration.

When an executive has the privilege to lead this inclusive kind of culture, life for them becomes clearer, and the opportunity to make wise business decisions easier. They spend less time playing organisational Whack A Mole because their team is already way ahead of the game. Time available to make decisions seems to stretch. Business becomes less about game playing against adversity, and more about sowing seeds and reaping the rewards. 

So, throw the mallet away and release the moles. Instead, till the earth to create your seed-bed for a High Performing Culture, and grow excellence as its cash crop.

Dr Gary Coulton leads the Adaptive Intelligence Group (AIG) and is a Certified Associate with Denison Europe.