Tag Archives: Collaboration

It has been a while – what’s new and what’s changed?

Maybe it was the uncertainty around Twitter, but I have decided to return to blogging here. Talk (blogging?) is cheap, so we will see how long this energy lasts.

Off the top, looking back and some of my posts and drafts from almost five years ago (The last time I published on this site was 2017), much of what I had originally positioned as “fundamental thinking” is unchanged. I will continue to review and revise. The first set of posts will likely be focussed on such changes or affirmations.

Turns of phrase that I have found myself using more and more center around “action” and “inaction.” The retrospective brings together binary thinking (from Bandersnatch, 2018) and the “always three options” from my reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (also 2018, based on the publish date of a Linked In article). So, in the face of “stay the course” or “try something new,” that every business faces, we can indeed act in a new way or not. The “not” part of if can be divided in two: not acting because you can’t figure out what to do or are still talking about it AND not acting because you have consciously decided to stay the course.

Note: If you want to further dissect the “stay the course,” one could ask: “Are you staying the course with confidence OR staying the course with curiosity?” As Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance warns, it is possible to over contemplate.

Looking forward to getting back to this kind of writing and thinking. I am always looking for things to think and write about: questions, developments, concerns, etc.

Stay tuned.

Oral tradition and written word in the workplace

Bloomberg published a fascinating article on a potential transition from society’s reliance on the written word to a society that works more heavily in spoken word (e.g. Post-literate) even if that “spoken word” is actually written in short burst (e.g. tweets).

Thankfully, no organization has to manage the breadth of diversity and divisiveness that exists today in the United States, but it is worth looking at the interplay between spoken and written word in providing the context for the working environment (e.g. corporate culture). The Bloomberg article identifies ways to make the most of a primarily oral environment (and how Donald Trump used these so effectively):

  1. Use tightly descriptive language (e.g. Crooked Hillary);
  2. Be redundant and repetitive (e.g. “I am a leader. I am a leader. I lead people,” etc.); and
  3. Engage in reflexive debate (e.g. “You’re the puppet!”).

To the first point, any workplace teems with acronyms and lingo that can convey a great deal of information quickly. We are also quick to hammer such mantras as “we are here for our customers” or “we have to be patient-centred.” Reflexive debate may be visible in more formal meeting environments or can also take place between two people behind closed doors. Unfortunately, such quips are also part of corrosive e-mail chains. The manner in which an organizational culture allows such “debates” can be defining of the work environment.

On the other side of the divide, the written word provides the luxury of being able to reference (rather than simply recall) decisions that we have made, policy that we have crafted and lessons that we have learned. In written documentation, we also have the opportunity and responsibility to fully explore a nuanced space, for example, we can describe exactly what “customer-centric decision making” entails beyond the tagline that “the customer is always right.” Further benefits of written communication come to bear when we make such content widely available, which can promote transparency beyond the group that is directly involved.

Technology has given us excellent solutions for availability. Accessibility may provide the biggest challenge for workplace policies and procedures. The written documents become very important in dealing with such issues as compliance, governance and litigation. The expectations of these areas tend to pull us away from being “widely accessible.”

NOTE: I was recently exposed to the acronym RTFM (Read the F@#%!*@g Manual) or RTFI (Read the F@#%!*@g Intranet). The predictable “oral response” to this written barb is: Make Your F@#%!*@g Manuals More Accessible (MTFMMA).

Discussion and dialogue are the means of collaboration that are most familiar and effective. In today’s work world, “oral” may not mean just spoken (think “chat” or informal e-mail discussions). The Bloomberg article references Marshall McLuhan’s edict “The medium is the message.” In a workplace, one can expect a blending of media and messages. The written reflexive debate can get ugly very quickly. As an example (ironically), have a look at the written “oral” comments at the bottom of that Bloomberg article.

The rules by which we roll

Let’s describe “an organization” as a collection of people with some degree of shared purpose (what we are doing) interacting within norms of some similarity (how we do things).

The “how we do things” can be dictated by formal policies, guiding language and/or understood norms. Each workplace context, in my experience, is different, so a brilliant element from one context does not guarantee success in another. So questions like “what if Disney ran your hospital?” make me cringe, as would an efforts to replicate Google’s success by adopting its famed policy of mandating one day per week to work on things unrelated to your job.

By their very nature, “rules” tend to have “exceptions,” which brings additional complexity, as does the ability and willingness to enforce the rules. There are also predictable negative responses to overt rules and guidelines. For illustrative purposes, and to take a break from conceptual discussions, let’s look at a tangible example of one “rule” and its impact: the off-leash dog park. If this environment were a workplace, the misalignment between this stated rule and the observed behaviours would create a poisonous culture.IMG_20160417_114450

NOTE: At the risk of stating the obvious, the “off-leash” part of these particular parks suggests that it is OK to have your dog “off leash” in this area, and “against the rules” to have dogs “off leash” in other areas.

1 – “There are so many rules; no one follows them all.”

If there is a rule that no one follows, let’s call it a bad rule. Well meaning people don’t follow “bad rules” because it is nonsensical and enforcement is sporadic at best. (e.g. keep the dog on leash when the bylaw officer is around). The logic of some rules can conger up Jerry Seinfeld’s comedic questioning of the California motorcycle helmet law intended to protect a brain whose judgement was so poor as to ride at high speeds with no protection whatsoever.

So, if the “off-leash” rule is a good rule, let’s explain some of the underlying logic: this creates designated space creates where people can’t complain about the dogs being off leash. If you don’t like being around dogs that are off leash, don’t go in there. As both a dog owner and a parkland runner, that is the exact reason why I choose not to run in the off leash areas. Make sense?

In a workplace context, efforts to demonstrate compliance can create vast numbers of rules and regulations. In the practice of collaboration, an over-developed need to reduce culpability risk can take away from the positive effect of good rules. If you have a good rule, it would be a useful practice to provide the rationale and/or be ready to answer “why?” should it arise. (On the latter point, the guidance “Ask Why?” has been forever sullied by its association with Enron.)

2 – “I am aware of the rule, but it doesn’t apply to me.”

There are competing ways to explain this one with differing levels of empathy toward the infractor. Aaron James, in his book “Assholes: A theory” suggests that one quick way to identify his study subject is to listen for “do you know who I am?” as a response to any assertion of rules and norms. The quip implies that if you did know, you would know that I constitute an exception to the rule. I have witnessed interactions on December 26th taking place across a counter with bold signage, “No Returns on Boxing Day.” To my chagrin, as one who appreciates good rules, the manager made “an exception” further reinforcing the attitude that the rule applies to those who don’t have the nerve (or lack of shame) to push back.

There is a less entitled mindset that, in the context of the off-leash park, will say, “Those off-leash parks are for dogs who are poorly behaved when they are off leash. My dog is fine to be off leash anywhere because he/she/it would never misbehave and hurt or startle someone.”

So back to the underlying logic: can we say that, in general, we don’t want dogs hurting or startling other people? Hurting is after the fact, which makes it tough and invokes another set of rules for dogs who have bitten. Startling can be in the eye of the beholder (e.g. don’t worry, he’s friendly offers little assurance), so, if you are easily startled, don’t go in off-leash area. Does that make sense?

3 – “I understand the rule. I just don’t like being told what to do.”

Even good rules have an uphill battle. David Rock’s SCARF model reveals that we have an uncontrolled neuro-biological resistance to anything that threatens out Autonomy (e.g. my ability to determine what is right for me). External rules are a direct assault on this, which makes any attempt to provide constraints on behaviour an uphill battle. We all have different levels of self-imposed guidelines of what we will and will not do, so if we are shaping our own behaviour, this resistance can be reduced.

Some nuanced discussion can align some underlying self-regulators with external constraints. So, the speed limit on the highway is not about a number, it is about driving safely. The sign on the post of the off-leash area is not about a boundary, but about what people can expect in different public spaces. Shoring up this space also takes the pressure off enforcement because you are doing the “right thing” for your own reasons.

If there were short take-aways from this discussion, how about these:

  • If you can impact the “rules” in your organization, shine a light on good rules and stamp out bad ones.
  • In drawing distinctions between good and bad rules, try to look at the underlying logic of what we are trying to encourage, discourage or prevent.
  • If you are stuck with bad rules (especially if they are sporadically enforced), find the underlying self-regulator and use that as your own rule. If you are “called out,” at least you are prepared for your side of the “why?” conversation.
All the best creating and shaping the rules by which you roll.

Do the Right Thing – Sorry Spike, it’s not that easy…

Long before Spike Lee’s movie, the concept of “do the right thing” was familiar to people both in the workplace and in other facets of life. The simplicity of this message is endearing, yet the complexity of work situations makes it impossible for managers to prescribe and predict the “thing” to “do” that would be “right” in all situations.

Sometimes “right” can be conveyed as a mindset rather than a set of actions. So, can we just ask people to “think the right thing” instead?DO_THE_RIGHT_THING

Note: A frequent frustration that I hear from managers and directors is that some of their reports need to be told what to do. Prescribing “what to think” rather than “what to do” can function as a countermeasure to such a dynamic.

I was recently working with a director in a health-care facility who found it both frustration and exhausting to try to list all the things that care aids should not do when they are in a resident’s room. (e.g. Do I really have to be telling them not to leave their gym bag in a resident’s room?!) Potentially, the more efficient communication would be “imagine that you are a guest in their house and act accordingly.” This provides a somewhat shared set of criteria to discuss the appropriateness of a behaviour (e.g. “If you were going to leave a bag in someone else’s house, you would ask first, no?”) Bringing that narrative frame could trigger a whole slew of behaviours that are consistent with “right” in that context.

People use this all the time for customer service:

  • The Dean of a business school briefs new faculty by saying: “In the class, treat your students as students. Outside the class, treat them as clients.”
  • An orthodontist conveys that she will treat your kids like they were hers.
  • A garage mechanics routinely says “if this was my car, I’d do it.”

Even when it comes to “the right thing,” I think there is a natural defensive reaction we all have to being told what to do and not to do. Imploring someone to adopt the “right mindset” may get beyond some of that psychological resistance and free people up to use their own judgement.

⇒ WARNING ⇐ Tread carefully in the “mindset” realm because such ideas can be powerful and pervasive. I recall being asked to deliver training on handling conflict that emerged from an unintended “mindset” consequence. Several internal teams in a hospital were given training in “customer service,” and unfortunately everyone appeared to leave the sessions thinking that they were the customer. (e.g. quick to point out deficiencies in getting what they wanted rather than focussed on meeting the expectations of others.) There is always a wrong end to the mindset stick.

Thirteen Days – The Measure of Success Review

“..You just don’t get it Admiral, do you?.” (Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to Admiral George Madsen)

  • Finding new protocols
  • Negotiating without dealing directly
  • Remembering what is really important


This movie relives the 13 days that transpired in the fall of 1962 when President JFK was dealing with the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. There is a great deal of fascinating political history surrounding this story, but I will over simplify the situation by identifying a few key dynamics of the day:

  1. The newly elected Kennedy administration (not quite 2 years into his first term), did not have full support of Congress and the leadership in the Pentagon. (Some feared too much appeasement.)
  2. Earlier in the administration, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion caused some in the military to feel the need to bolster or repair their image.
  3. The Cold War was in full swing.

This unfolding story is a textbook case study in multi-party negotiations. Kennedy has an inner circle that includes his brother Bobby and long-time friend and advisory, Kenny O’Donnell. Through the political drama that is playing out on international and intra-government levels, they have to calculate what moves to make (and which not to) in order to keep on track and, more importantly, send the correct signals to stakeholders to protect and not sour/strain important relationships.

Spoiler Alert: They avoid starting WWIII (but you knew that).


There are a million different agendas at play in this movie, including those mentioned above that stem from embarrassment and outrage following the very public failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. There is a natural reaction for people want to prove themselves again or create situations to further expose the weaknesses of others. It is safe to say that not everyone wants JFK to succeed in this situation or, to be more nuanced, to be seen to have succeeded.

The one area that absolutely everyone can get behind is “avoid a nuclear war.” This is powerful and comes up again and again, sometimes as a threat (e.g. if you do that, you will force us/them into a war) and sometimes as a shared interest (e.g. none of us wants that to happen, right?).

It is hard to understand “how we are doing” when it comes to global peace, but the metaphoric journey is to advance the political agenda without triggering an international crisis. In the workplace, the downside may be less steep, but this provides a good lesson in dealing with “enemies” who share a common overarching goal of ours.

Set-up – Rules and Constraints:

One of the most interesting exchanges for me was that about the interpretation of the “rules of engagement” when a Soviet warship had breached the “blockade” (which was actually called a “quarantine” because technically a “blockade” is an “act of war”). The historic escalation protocol according to the Navy rules of engagement would have been to hail the ship, then fire blanks across the bow, then fire real artillery to disable the rudder before finally boarding the enemy ship.

JFK’s specific instruction of “no firing” without Presidential consent created some confusion as to whether or not firing a blank was actually “firing.” Conversations over specificity of wording to this level tend to try my patience, but this is a legitimate distinction to draw. The exchange between the Defense Secretary and the highest ranking naval officer is a fascinating look at how overt conflict is part of the fabric in navigating the waters of collaboration. (Pun intended, BTW.)

Set-up – Measures and Metrics:

The “result” that seems to define success in this context is: “have we started a nuclear war yet?” We are often in situations where the only obvious indicators are events or occurrences. This tends to be part of the territory for anyone operating with a “prevention” agenda. Have we been audited? Have we had a bad safety incident? Have key employees quit yet? Have we gone out of business yet?

A level down from that ultimate measure are two overt examples that fit in this area:

  • Were we fired on? In an effort to quell an overly reactive orientation from the military, JFK’s top aide persuades a pilot to hide the fact that they were indeed fired on. Hiding this evidence helps stay true to the “no war” objective while dodging the “retaliate when fired upon” rule that appears to be in place.
  • Have we cut any deals? As the situation intensifies, one creative solution that emerges is to trade the Soviet removal of missiles in Cuba for the US removal of missiles in Turkey. The quid pro quo of this is endearing, but if it were to happen, it can’t be seen to have been a deal, especially under threat.

In Sum:

Although the international diplomacy and threat of mass devastation may not be part of your regular workplace collaborations, there is a lot to be learned here about flexing some of the areas of the system (e.g. assumed “rules” and indicators) to keep focussed on the success that everyone can get behind. “World peace” can rank pretty high on the noble cause scale, but reminding people of a larger agenda can be very effective in enabling creativity and managing unavoidable conflict.

MONEYBALL – The Measure of Success Review

“..the first guy through the wall…it always gets bloody, always.” (John Henry to Billy Beane)

  • How things change
  • Getting people on board
  • Defining performance and changing expectations


This Michael Lewis story lays out what was the beginning of the rise of Sabermetrics: a new way of thinking about baseball. Previously, baseball nerd Bill James had a small cult-like following of people who always knew that mainstream baseball thinking and strategy were flawed. This group was enlightened but their wisdom was contained to the group of believers. The baseball establishment was simply not interested. In the early days of the new millennium, along comes Billy Beaned at GM of the Oakland A’s, whose particular problem makes it impossible to “play the game” as it is dictated.

“The problem we are trying to solve is that there are rich teams and poor teams, then there is 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” (Billy Beane to his Team Scouts)

The story plays out as Beane and his trusty sidekick Pete try to implement their strategy in collaboration with ownership, team scouts, team management and players. This challenge to an existing status quo and persistence in implementation are both fascinating and insightful, bringing real-world lessons to managers and leaders. Here is how the Money Ball story maps to the “collaboration game” framework.


There is a great scene in the movie (quoted above), where Billy Beane lays out the problem for his team of scouts. The expression of this is only partial in this scene where he alludes to the fact that they have to run a shoe-string budget. Earlier in the movie he is very clear to state that rather than just “be competitive” or “not embarrassing” the objective is to win the World Series. Although “winning the World Series” is a point in time accomplishment, the general direction of “be the best” is important here and distinctly different from “be one of the best” or “not be the worst.”

Set-up – Rules and Constraints:

The link between the “be the best” direction and the specific Oakland A’s challenge stems from the small budget. The opportunity here is to create an understanding that “this is a challenge” rather than “this is impossible, why even try?” The former takes on the narrative of the wily underdog taking on the deep-pocketed establishment. Rather than moaning about not having enough money, the group has something to prove to the rest of the baseball world (think KC Royals of 2015).

Set-up – Measures and Metrics:

One measure for a professional sports team is summed up in the movie by the Billy Beane line “[Once you make the playoffs] If you don’t win the last game of the season, nobody gives a shit.” Close doesn’t count for those who want to “be the best.”

Spending within budget could be a constraint attached to a measure. There is at least one negotiation with ownership to release some extra money, so that constraint is apparently a little fluid. Conceivably as long as you can make the case for the necessity of this extra money in pursuit of the “be the best” agenda.

The tangible metric that is most revealing of the new logic is in how to evaluate potential. Enter the on-base-percentage (replacing the “batting average), which accounts for any skill in getting a base-on-balls, in addition to that of getting an actual “hit.” The logic flows as follows: You win games by scoring runs, to score you have to get players on base, so we want players who can get on base. (Sabermetrics had since evolved, and will continue to.)

In Sum:

To me the greatest relevance to the workplace is in the area of change overhauls that come down from the top. The CEO gets and idea in his/her head and tries to role it out through the organization. There are instances to “sell and tell” and there are some constituencies that refuse to buy-in to the new logic… and like any logical construct, the new way of thinking always has its flaws.

The Balancing Act of Collaborating

There is lots of talk about “getting on the same page,” but in most work situations some level of conflict persists and can vary from subtle differences in opinion to diametrically opposed views. We all know that maintaining cordial working relationships is a must, yet too much focus appeasing diminishes our results and too much focus on our agenda carries the risk of losing status as “a team player.”

It can feel a bit like walking a tightrope and constantly balancing between

  • Being self assured, but not belligerent.
  • Being accommodating, but not spineless.
  • Being ambitious, but staying realistic (Picture a “stretch goal” snapping our rope!)

Maintaining forward momentum while maintaining this “balance” is also tricky. There are three large areas of attention that can help:
How am I seeing the situation (and should I look at it differently)?

With reams of data at our disposal, it is very easy to arrive at very different evidence-supported answers to the question “how are we doing?”  Those closest to the situation tend to have a really good read on how things actually work, but once performance measures are imposed, these same people can start to question their gut feelings. Taking time to gather a different perspective on your own may be more effective than simply taking in the perspectives of others. One part confidence; two parts humility.

Who do I have to work with (and how are those existing relationships)?

We have relationships to manage that are up, down and across. Our group of stakeholders will vary in terms of stature they maintain in the organization, but individual differences in style almost guarantees interpersonal challenges amidst the organizational politics. In practice, we have to navigate a complex web to get what we want for us and for others. Efforts are building/rebuilding relationships can make the tightrope seem a little wider (or maybe not so high).

What are the real priorities here (or, at least, what should they be)?

Sticking with the “rope” metaphor (why abandon it now?), what happens when tightropes turn into tug-o-wars? Such situations tend to consume lots of effort, but provide disappointingly little in the form of results. Many of us are not in the position to impose our views on the organization, but we all can exert a degree of influence. Even when things are at cross-purposes, speaking truth to power can be scary. Is asking power for a small clarification any better?

Early warning signs

Corporate culture is at once pervasive and invisible. Anyone who has worked in more than one organization (or suffered through a merger) can attest to palpable differences between how/if we celebrate birthdays, how/if we deal with poor performers and a million other particularities in the given context, all of which are clearly understood to all involved. Itemizing such particularities could be work for another day, but let’s focus on what is “good” and “desired” in a corporate culture.

Such discussions always involve some disagreements.

As an example to illustrate the type of disagreement, let me share the following:

I once had a colleague from L.A. and we got to chatting, as people do, about the weather. Having spent most of my life in the stretch of Canada that runs from Montréal to Toronto, I have had my dose of harsh winters (and they seem to be worse as I get older). A Canadian seeing the weather in southern California is like a municipal links golfer looking through the fence at Augusta National. How shocking to hear her proclaim that the weather in her native land was “… boring. It’s just the same all the time, day after day.”

This same variance in personal preference will be found in any commentary on preferred work environments. Too much conflict/not enough conflict; too many rules/not enough clarity; too much bureaucracy/not enough rigour; too formal/too informal; too unforgiving/too lenient, etc.

Some of these oversimplified critiques help to illustrate important areas that need to be balanced; two of these relate to conflict and ambiguity. I have recently had my drawn attention to “signage,” whose role should be to reduce ambiguity (by stating a practice) and, by logical connection, to reduce conflict (because the rule is now clear).

Have look at this one on “Fridge Etiquette” (click to enlarge):


Can such a sign be an indication of an underlying corporate culture or work environment? Here is a quick analysis of the “rules” depicted:

  • Rules 1 & 2: Doubtless that an unclaimed mouldy sandwich brought this issue to the forefront.
  • Rule 3: How many late-comers to the fridge encountered insufficient capacity before this was enacted? (“Look at all those lunch bags taking up all that room! This isn’t right and something has to be done!”)
  • Rule 4: Ah yes, stockpiling. My guess is that someone went to Costco on the way to work and tried to put 48 single serve yoghurts in the fridge (maybe only for a few hours).
  • Rule 5: How many spills were left unattended and for how long?
  • Rule 6: What was the extent of the lunch thievery or was this a preventative measure?

Rules can be fantastic at reducing ambiguity, but only if everyone follows them. Compliance necessitates a dance between the practicality of the rule and its enforcement. For example, one might question the practicality of asking people to disassemble a packed lunch bag and remove only the items that will pose a Health and Safety threat if left unrefridgerated for 3 hours.

Diagnosing a corporate culture takes time and perspective. This can make it hard to do from the inside. A look at “signage” can be a quick place to start to get the pulse of how as a group we use this means to try to reduce ambiguity and conflict.

To fully unleash the power of the Internet, I offer a standing invite to share signs you have seen or look at everyday. Good, bad, ugly, etc.

Results-Based Development (Some Backstory on Goal Setting)

One of my biggest frustrations as an education professional (trainer, instructor, consultant, etc.) is that the standard “measure of success” is “Did the participant like it?” I do not suggest that participant enjoyment is not important, but “did they like it” is only part of the story. I would like to think that the “liking” could align with developing in an intended direction. For example, “I liked it because the skills and awareness were necessary for me to better perform in my role” rather than “I liked it because the facilitator was funny, let us go early, and we had a hot lunch.” Similarly, if participants didn’t “like it” what was the reason? Not relevant? Waste of time? Made me think too much? No clear tools? Sharpening the axe can take some time; maybe an axe isn’t even the right tool…

What to measure becomes so important. In the absence of any other measure, maybe “participant satisfaction as indicated by ‘smile sheets'” is acceptable and maybe we even set a goal accordingly. We could get some help from George Doran and employ the SMART goal framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound). Mr. Doran’s helpful and memorable tool may create some unintended consequences.

Specific: Oversimplifying a situation such that the focus is on the “operation” and not on the “patient,” as in the dark humour of “the operation was a success, but the patient died.” We trained teams separately to keep a friendly atmosphere. Participants loved the “team building” sessions, but we still have turf wars between these two groups. Other examples could include, delivering a product that met the customers specs exactly, but seeing unacceptable margins.

Measurable: This orientation tends to push us toward what can be measured, which can dangerously skew attention toward distracting elements. E.G. We wanted to reduce customer complaints, but all we did was encourage front-line staff to accommodate ridiculous requests (which ended up costing us money!)

Achievable: This aspects needs much more context. Achievable to whom? What are the consequences of success or failure? If the latter has any connection to monetary reward, you can guarantee that “sand bagging” will ensue, more generously known as “managing expectations.”

Relevant: Again, to whom? In trying to increase relevance by attaching rewards to achievement, the sand-bagging danger rises.

Time-bound: This tends to drive the behaviour that the stages of the journey are discreet and independent. Winning the Tour de France is not necessarily about leading at every stage.

In an effort to establish goals that align the interests, I find myself up against three (at least) immovable truisms that I will explain here.

It is a journey not a destination: The long-game can easily get lost because it is so difficult to conceptualize. Let’s pick a direction to move towards and not worry too much about “what happens if we get there?” or exactly where “there” even is.

Anecdote – The Artist Formerly Known as Prince

If pinned down to an overall direction for his live shows, let’s assume that Prince would say he wanted to create an exceptional musical experience. Rumour has it that all musicians and back-up vocalists were encouraged to come and tell Prince when they had nailed their part, at which point, Prince would add to their task. The guitarists that mastered the base-track would get a dance sequence. The well rehearsed back-up vocalist would be given a percussion part. And if you nailed that, he had even more for you. The message being: good enough is never good enough.

Everyone games the system: Self interest is part of everyone’s psyche. It will kick in for different people at different times, but even the most principled and well-intentioned people will take advantage of ways to game the system. We must take extreme care in selecting measures because that will directly impact behaviour.

Work is not family (for everyone): Many will use the metaphor of a family or a community to describe an organization that functions with a healthy degree of trust and shared focus. For me, community is more realistic simply because it introduces the responsibility you have as a member of the community, but also leaves the door open to leave the community if you find another one that is a better fit. The understood permanence of the “family” connection means that your only choice is to make the best of it. This can generate a nice bit of commitment, but can also create resentment and guilt.

This critique of some common approaches to goal-setting and identifying some relevant “truisms” should provide some important rationale behind the “results-based development” approach explained here.

Results-Based Development (Under the hood of Aligning Interests)

In many different contexts, we see examples of competition contributing to higher performance. For competition in business, we can draw and important distinction between “good competition” and “bad competition,” which is sometimes under emphasized. As I understand it, “good competition” creates an environment where everyone has to “up their game” to remain competitive. As evidence that “the market works,” we would see examples of customers benefiting from competition because organizations have to work harder and smarter to remain in business. Conversely, “bad competition” creates an environment that destroys long-term value in the name of “winning” or “surviving.” In such scenarios, organizations harm the sector and themselves in a “race to the bottom.” Such scenarios also have organizations engage in ethically questionable behaviour to “win at all costs.”

To start, let’s assume that “good competition” is indeed possible. Let’s further assume that for it to work, it requires that parties share an understanding of what “good” they are trying to accomplish.

For businesses, making money is “good,” but so are other forms of benefit: safer automobile travel (Toyota), or sustainable practices (Unilever). Governments are expected to think more about the greater “good,” and as a specific illustration, let me use community health-care in Ontario.  Let’s say that “good” in this context is “efficiency in delivering necessary services to patients,” or something that balances provision of necessary services within fiscal constraints. As is the current practice, the government-funded payment to service providers for some activities can be attached to a result or outcome:  a service provider is given a lump sum to achieve a specific outcome (e.g. heal a wound). If they can complete the task more efficiently, profit is theirs. If it happens to take longer or more resources, the provider spends those resources, but can’t come back to the funder for more money. If this works, tax-payers in Ontario get better bang for their collective buck, and patients get high quality care; wins all around.

This same type of arrangement could work in a non-governemnt context as long as the service provider is at least partially interested in the same definition of “good.” This creates “good competition, and efficient organizations that do good work will succeed.

Slide1The realm of “bad competition” can be peppered with “perverse incentives,” whereby, for example, a service provider could legitimately want a patient to stay sick, or at very least, err too much on the side of caution and so as to go wildly offside with a “fiscal responsibility” effort. This is the potentially very ugly underbelly of the public-sector contracting out to the private sector. In a consulting relationship, this can create, for example, an incentive to run-up the billable hours.

Slide2 again


Setting goals and objectives that promote shared accountability is extremely tricky. From my experience, the real trick is to align activity to a common purpose (e.g. the “good”), and I will go as far to say that without a shared interest, collaboration of this nature is impossible because the result will actually create “bad” competition.