Tag Archives: Organizational Development

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):

IMG_20150417_083010

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.

Using “No” to shape your culture

When it comes to a corporate culture, a simple “No” can be defining. Descriptors of a culture can range from “awesome” to “toxic” on the “what is it like?” continuum (public examples of the former would include the “culture of fear” reported at Toronto’s school board). From my experiences, I think you could make an argument for another continuum from “distinctive” to “yet to settle in.”

Like the famous “I know it when I see it” description of obscenity by US Supreme Court Justice Potter, a desired workplace culture can be difficult to describe. Cultures define how people act, and a more cohesive culture has people acting in similar ways, especially around the important issues. This can be a good thing, but can also be disastrous.

If you have not seen the movie Lars and the Real Girl, it is worth a watch. One memorable scene takes place in a church basement, where a community group wrestles with a complicated problem. (Note: going into more detail would risk spoiling your viewing experience, so I will stop there.) As the discussion reaches a point where some action is imminent, the priest starts to answer the unspoken question of “what do we do now?” He begins stating that “the question” is always the same. Pausing dramatically, he continues, predictably, to state that question: “What would Jesus do?

The moment of his pause is well worth considering. Many times, I have been in situations where someone tries to provide an overarching consideration for a complicated situation. In management speak, this is may be termed “framing the problem.” Such questions could include:

  • what is our duty as… Board members? Executives? Managers? Corporate Citizens?
  • what works best for… our customers? our suppliers? our employees? our investors? us?
  • where do we stand to be… most competitive? most profitable? most innovative?

In a less charitable light, one might assume that the pause-breaking question be:

  • What can we reasonably get away with?
  • What is going to make this problem go away?
  • How can we avoid short-term conflicts?

Such questions may be useful, but a shortcut to cultural insights comes through clarifying “what we can’t” or “what we won’t do.” Saying “No” seems to be more active than not saying “No,” which tends to imply that something is OK (e.g. silence is consent). These “Nos” and “Don’ts” are very telling in clarifying unstated criteria that drive action and inaction. Hiding things from leadership (or having leadership turn a blind eye) is a sure path toward the “toxic” work environment. Progression down this path will vary, but in the journey that lead to the TDSB’s current woes, we likely will find significant doses of both deception of leadership and willful ignorance by them.

So to set (or reset) a positive cultural path, consider saying “No” more publicly and maybe more often.  Such “Nos” shine a special light on what is really important.

  • A culture that pays attention to employee retention, will say “No” to a client who routinely bullies their account managers. (We don’t have to fire the client, but there will be action to stop the behaviour.)
  • A culture that is serious about innovation and risk-taking, will say “No” to attempts to punish failure and mistakes. (This is not to say that we encourage recklessness, but we will take time to discuss and understand risks, as well as plan to mitigate the consequences of attempts that fail.)
  • A culture that embraces work-life balance will say “No” to initiatives the needlessly restrict work-from-home initiatives. (This may mean that we look to different means of accountability than simply “hours worked” or time in the office.)

If you are a leader in your environment, your “No” will speak volumes. Others can bring items to leaderships attention, and ask them to make such calls, which are part of their role in leading, shaping and clarifying a positive culture.

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.

 

Aligning for Performance – Where to start

The Lululemon stories coming out this week illustrate, if nothing else, that running a successful business is a complicated endeavour. There are a number of interests to balance, and something always has to give. Determining what exactly what should “give” and how exactly to implement that decision introduces an interplay between three dimensions of an organization:

  1. Overall Direction
  2. Measures and Metrics
  3. Rules and Norms

To have a serious look at “performance,” each of these is necessary though no one dimension logically prevails. The result of the interplay is very tangible to those operating in and around the environment. Employees actually live it, and investors, suppliers and other stakeholders are deeply affected by it.

From an organizational development perspective, these dimensions offer distinctly different lenses through which to analyze and evaluate performance. They can also inform opportunities for on-course corrections that can pre-empt a larger “realignment” or “change project.” Here is a quick explanation of what you could see through each lens.

Dimension #1 – Overall Direction (balancing inspiration with reality; clarity with rigidity)

Done well
  • There is alignment toward an overarching purpose.
  • We all know why we are here.
  • We have an obvious shared interest and our conflict is about how to get there not where to go.
Overdone 
  • Attachment to “core values” grows rigid such that an unrealistic zeal drives activity.
  • People are quick to become indignant when others suggest that we would ever compromise or question the direction that has been set.
  • There is talk of “sacred cows.”
Underdone
  • Lack of consistent focus makes it hard for people to assign priority.
  • Lower levels of management feel compelled to check with upper levels.
  • Management shows reluctance to exercise judgement because decision-making criteria is unclear.
Dimension #2 – Measures and Metrics (balancing art and science; means and ends)
Done well
  • There are appropriate and trackable indicators of performance at individual, team and organizational levels.
  • Discussions around performance, including performance reviews, have some objective and tangible criteria.
  • With negative changes in measures and metrics, discussions turn to “what can we do to affect this outcome?”
Overdone 
  • Emphasis on “making the numbers” leads to situations akin to “the operation was a success, but the patient died.”
  • Rampant gaming of the system to make “my numbers,” with complete disregard for overall impact.
  • No concept of “taking one for the team” because there is no opportunity to provide a context or expectation of reciprocity.
Underdone
  • There is no meaningful indication of results and outcomes.
  • Well-intentioned people often feel that although much gets done, little may have been accomplished.
  • There is little perceived connection to and control over end-results (positive or negative)


Dimension #3 – Rules and norms (balancing constraints with restrictions; formal with informal)
Done well
  • There are a few key parameters that people maintain (and don’t need to look at the website for guidance).
  • These are supported in formal policy (e.g. vision, mission and values).
  • There is a “spirit” of the rules not fully captured by the “letter” of the formal statements
Overdone 
  • Decision-making may be stifled because everything is prescribed and no judgment is required.
  • Rationale for doing something is often replaced with explanation of rules, guidelines and norms that prescribe behaviour (more “we/you can’t” than “why couldn’t we?”)
  • People look for air-cover from a policy or from “so-and-so said we have to do it this way” to justify actions/decisions.
Underdone
  • The walls of the office have signs like: “DO NOT LEAVE FOOD IN THE OFFICE FRIDGE OVERNIGHT.“ & “DO NOT LET THIS DOOR SLAM.”
  • The funnel of “policies in progress” is always full.
  • Existing policies are routinely reworked to be clearer. (e.g. Coffee cream is exempt from “Food left in Fridge” policy.)
What now/what next?

An analysis of this nature has to sift through competing perceptions of the situation. If the goal is to improve performance, the first step should be to better understand it. The interplay of these dimensions is similar to the combination of individual life philosophy, personal goals, and code of conduct that form a human being. Some degree of misalignment is inevitable, but very often it is manageable. Large misalignments and inconsistencies will become obvious over time and become more difficult to manage and to hide.

Using these dimensions as a periodic diagnostic within an organization can bring insight to where to focus time and energy to proactively affect future performance. This can also help to prevent large crises that require swift and sudden change.