Organizational paralysis stifles new business and threatens your agency


When we hear the word “paralysis” we usually think about the physical body. Paralysis also happens in organizations, often with devastating consequences.

The inability to act can negatively impact every aspect of your firm including the bottom line. Think about it, your business is not unlike a shark, especially if you run an advertising, design, digital, social media, branding, promotion or public relations firm, etc. In other words, businesses operating in a continually evolving market. Stop ‘moving’ and you die.

The fish stinks from the head

When things are going well, leaders typically receives lots of accolades, right? Likewise, as this ancient proverb points out, leadership is also the root cause when organizations or states struggle or fail. Some leaders become paralyzed when the market gets rough. This causes their company to be paralyzed. There’s no doubt that leaders have tremendous influence over their organizations, influence that can be positive or negative.

The cause

Overwhelmed2Dr. Bob Rausch, PH.D., an executive coach and leadership expert, details how negative influence becomes apparent when a leader is so overwhelmed that the company loses direction. His article, Overcoming organizational paralysis is a powerful read.

It’s the head’s inability to effectively influence the body that causes the paralysis and not surprising that it’s occurring more often these days. Advertising agency and marketing services firm leaders are under great pressure to meet objectives with leaner staffs while navigating an environment that is continually evolving at an accelerated pace. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lose direction.

Dr. Rausch goes on to point out that it’s the lack of direction that causes organizational paralysis. The outgrowth is confusion, frustration, and irritation in the leader and this affects (and infects) the morale of the whole company. This is especially true if these behaviors cause leadership to blame those charged with producing results.

Vicious dance

When employees begin to feel the effects of leadership frustration, they translate it into “Why try? We’re not respected or valued for what we think or do anyway.” Leader frustration combined with employees feeling disrespected results in a vicious “dance” that drains enterprise energy. Decreasing enterprise energy causes performance and productivity to deteriorate.

I recently worked with an agency that was struggling mightily and looking for answers. My research unearthed organizational paralysis that was rooted in leadership’s inability to agree on the agency’s brand position and also to the inability to fix core operational problems over time. This transformed a once very vibrant and positive culture to one defined by confusion, fear, frustration and zero confidence in the firm’s leaders. Some had given up and others chose to leave. It’s a toxic environment for a business built on ideas and inspiration.

See through the haze

fogWe all know that the first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is one. While this may sound simple, it can be anything but easy when you’re in the heat of battle. Leaders often have difficulty isolating the problem(s) if they are also in the middle of the fight. It’s easy to lose perspective and objectivity when you can’t see the enemy, much less the battlefield through the fog. As Dr. Rausch points out, “a leader becomes so overwhelmed that the company loses direction.”

The firm leaders that I mentioned earlier had allowed the core problems to fester for so long without addressing them along the way that the mole hill grew into a mountain and everything became a blur.

Embrace it as an opportunity

If you want to change your firm’s trajectory, stop blaming others. Take ownership of the current situation and seize it as an opportunity to grow. When you do this, others will follow.

Seek the force

As Sir Isaac Newton expressed in his first law of motion, An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

In the world of solving organizational issues, this initial “force” can be a capable and trusted adviser, someone who provides an objective perspective. They can help you clarify the core problem(s) and visualize the right strategy to move forward with. Of course, this “force” will only be valuable if leadership is genuinely open and has the courage to embrace the truth and see it as an opportunity.

When the going gets tough…

Whenthegoinggetstough…the tough get going. Notre Dame’s legendary football coach Knute Rockne coined this phrase. Haven’t you noticed how happy and care-free everyone seems to be when things are going well? Often, if you were to look closely you’d find that there are problems that have been ignored and masked. It’s when business gets rough that a weakness rears its ugly head.

I’ve heard it said that that you learn who people really are not during the good times, but when times get tough. Wouldn’t you agree? Look around you and ask yourself, “Who’s in the foxhole with me?”

Breaking free from organizational paralysis is anything but easy, but it can be done! Many times the answers are pretty obvious, just overlooked.

While this issue does not relate directly to new business development or client retention it’s clearly a barrier that prevents advertising agencies and marketing services firms from successfully attracting, winning and retaining business – and growing.

Thanks for your time and as always, good hunting (and moving forward)!



  1. Alexander A. 08/21/2013, 6:09 am Reply

    Larry, thanks for the insight. Taking a step back and analyzing the situation from 10,000 feet is always the best way to solve a problem.

    • Larry 08/21/2013, 9:40 am Reply

      You’re welcome, Alex and spot on – recognition is the first step. One big challenge that I find with small to mid-size firms is that the owners tend to be doers and not just managers. They more easily get sucked into the fog of battle where they lose perspective and are therefore much slower to get to a point of recognition. It usually takes a negative trigger like a lost client(s) or key staff member(s) to cause them to step back – in other words, a 2 x 4 to the side of the head. If this sounds at all familiar, what, if anything have you found helpful to get you to a point of recognition more quickly?

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