This conversation follows on from an earlier conversation: Mazism 1: There Is Always A Price, It Is Always Paid.
What lies at the source of organisational effectiveness? Is is strategic planning in the guise of strategy? Is it process standardisation / reengineering in its many disguises? Is it restructuring the business, offshoring and outsourcing? Is it about embracing and making good use of the latest information technology? Is it about embracing the latest management fashion: customer-centricity, customer experience, digital business? Is it leadership? Or organisational learning?
After 25+ years spent engaged in the challenge of improving organisational effectiveness and business performance, I am clear that the access to organisational effectiveness and superior performance does not lie in any of these domains. Why? Because they do not get to the heart of the matter: of what is actually so about organisational life and the game of business. What is so?
I am clear that organisational effectiveness (team, function, business unit, corporate) comes down to the people and their relationships with one another. By ‘relationships’ I mean the communicating-relating that has occurred and is occurring between people. If the job of ‘leaders’ is to cultivate organisational effectiveness then it occurs to me that leadership involves-requires a focus on people and relationships. I invite you to read-consider the following passage (bolding is my work):
The lone warrior myth of leadership is a sure route to heroic suicide. Though you may feel alone at times with either creative ideas or the burden of final decision-making authority, psychological attachments to operating solo will get you into trouble. You need partners. Nobody is smart enough or fast enough to engage alone with the political complexity of an organisation or community when it is facing and reacting to an adaptive challenge.
Relating to people is central to leading and staying alive. If are you are not naturally a political person, then find partners who have that ability to be intensely conscious of the importance of relationships in getting challenging work done. Let them help you develop allies. Then, beyond developing your base of support, let them help you relate to your opposition, those people who feel that they have the most to lose with your initiative. You need to stay close to them to know what they are thinking and feeling, and to demonstrate that you are aware of their difficulty. Moreover, your efforts to gain trust must extend beyond your allies and opposition, to those folks who are uncommitted. You will have to find appropriate ways to own your piece of the mess and acknowledge the risks and losses people may have to sustain. Sometimes you can demonstrate your awareness by modelling the risk or the loss itself…..
– Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linksy, Leadership On The Line
Time after time I have witnessed promising ‘strategies’ and plans come to nothing during the implementation phase because those leading change have been blind to the importance of people and relationships – during the strategy development phase, the implementation phase, and/or the post implementation phase.
I say look at any effective organisation (team department, business unit, corporate, society) and you will find healthy communicating-relating occurring between the people who collectively constitute that organisation. And healthy communicating-relating occurring between members of that organisation and the people who they interact with in the broader environment in which that organisation organises and executes its work.
I continue to be amazed that some Tops and Middles want to work on improving customer relationships and the Customer Experience. Why? Because they and their organisations have little appreciation-consideration-feeling for the quality of communicating-relating that is occurring in the organisation. And no lived experience nor appreciation of the the Employee Experience: whether on the front line or the back office.
“We’re not going to get a perfect solution in the short-term”
Talk abounds, advice abounds: the road to organisational nirvana is laid out by many a guru, professor and consultant. Talk about big data, customer analytics and customer insight. Talk about marketing effectiveness and marketing automation. Talk about sales effectiveness and sales force automation. Talk about great customer service. Talk about CRM. And talk about Customer Experience. Yet, little really changes: I see managers grappling with the same challenges that they were grappling with in 1999 when it comes to marketing, sale, service, and CRM.
Given the abundance in talk why is it that so little changes when it comes to organisational behaviour and organisational effectiveness? Let’s take a look at this question from the position of being on the court (in the organisation) rather than in the stands as a journalist/reporter (which is how many gurus, professors and consultants show up for me).
Working with a number of people grappling with the challenge of improving the sales process, improving customer service, enabling CRM and improving the Customer Experience across the entire customer journey one manager exclaimed “We’re not going to get a perfect solution in the short-term”. What led to this statement? Days of grappling with the challenge; coming face to face with the many and interlinked factors – culture, people, process, systems, data, metric, business priorities – in the way of making any significant changes-improvements.
If you and I had been on the court grappling with the challenges that this manager was grappling with then I say that it is highly likely, almost certain, that we would have arrived at the same place: this is too much to take on, let’s focus on what is doable in the short-term.
A history of short-term local fixes leaves room only for short-term local fixes
Given how everything is interlinked to everything (the systems nature of organisations) and the desire of Tops for ‘instant solutions’ to specific problems, Middles get busy on the short-term fixes and the quick wins. What is missed is that today there is only room for short-term fixes and quick wins because previously management took the route of the short-term fix instead of doing that which was necessary for generating longer term effectiveness.
Every time we intervene in the organisation we make a choice. What choice? The choice to leading the organisation to higher performance or generating a drift to low performance. In fixing the pressing local-functional problem, focusing on the short-term, and going after quick wins, the Tops and Middles are generating a drift to low performance. How/why? Let’s listen to a noted systems thinker, Donella H. Meadows.
“Some systems not only resist policy and stay in a normal bad state, they keep getting worse. One name for this archetype is “drift to low performance”. Examples include falling market share in a business, eroding quality of service in a hospital, continuously dirtier rivers or air ….. state of …… schools…..”
How does this drift to low performance occur?
“The actor in the feedback look (… government, business, hospital….), has …. a performance goal or desired system state that is compared to the actual state. If there is a discrepancy, action is taken……
But in this system, there is a distinction between the actual system state and the perceived state. The actor tends to believe the bad news more than the good news. As actual performance varies, the best results are dismissed as aberrations, the worst results stay in the memory. The actor thinks things are worse than they really are.
And to complete this tragic archetype, the desired state of the system is influenced by the perceived state. Standards aren’t absolute. When perceived performance slips, the goal is allowed to slip. “Well, that’s about all you can expect.” ……. “Well, look around, everybody else is having trouble too.”
The lower the perceived system state, the lower the desired state. The lower the desired state, the less discrepancy, and the less corrective action is taken. The less corrective action, the lower the system state. If this loop is allowed to run unchecked, it can lead to continuous degradation in the system’s performance.
Another name for this system is “eroding goals”. It is also called the “boiled frog syndrome”……. Drift to low performance is a gradual process. If the system is plunged quickly. there would be an agitated corrective process. But if it drifts down slowly enough to erase the memory of (or belief in) how much better things used to be, everyone is lulled not lower and lower expectations, lower effort, lower performance.”
Here I ask you to be present to what the manager said after grappling with the challenge: “We’re not going to get a perfect solution in the short-term.” Do you see, how it is that if one takes this reasonable approach the organisation almost never gets around to creating-putting in place the ‘perfect solution’? How/why? Because it is never the right team to make difficult decisions, create-accept short-term pain in order to generate longer term effectiveness!
What are the antidotes to eroding goals and the drift to low performance?
In her book, Thinking In Systems, Donnella H. Meadows points out that there are two antidotes:
“One is to keep standard absolute, regardless of performance. Another is to make goals sensitive to the best performances of the past, instead of the worst..….. if one takes the best results as standard, and the worst results as a temporary setback, then the same system structure can pull the system up to better and better performance.
This reminds me of my father. When I was young my father insisted that a) I finish whatever I started no matter what; b) do the best that I was capable of doing; c) strive to do better than I did the last time; d) set my sights on the best performer in the class; and e) take the short-term pain in order to generate the longer term gain.