Improving organizational performance by leveraging Human Resources has been a hot topic since God was a boy. Every year hundreds of titles are published around this subject. Yet most executives, suffering from information overload, have little hope of wading through the sheer volume of data. Wouldn’t it be really great if someone ‘summarized’ this stuff and made it simple? Here goes…
1st Commandment: Let people in on the BIG picture
The creation of organizational purpose is the first key managerial task. Simply stated, people need to feel that their organization ‘stands for’ something and what they do makes a difference. The underpinning thesis is simple. Most people look for purpose in their lives; if they cannot find it in work they find some external activity and place their energies elsewhere. At a societal level, the fall off in the practice of formal religion has left a ‘purpose gap’ in many peoples lives. High performance organizations’ manage to tap into this potential energy. A growing body of research suggests that an extra 30+% of effort is available. The even better news is that it’s free for those who have the managerial nous to go after it! Does everyone need a ‘higher order purpose’? While it’s difficult to generalize, there’s good evidence to suggest the following: While most of us initially focus on ‘paying the mortgage’, once this is achieved we need a higher order purpose to get into 5th gear. Paying the bills requires compliant behaviour but is not energising (for senior staff, the bills are paid by Tuesday anyway — you have to give them something to focus on for the rest of the week). To get top gear performance, organizations’ need to move beyond hygiene factors. Example: The St. Vincent de Paul Society in Ireland manage to mobilise 10,000 unpaid volunteers, 52 weeks each year and have managed to do this for the past 180 years. How? By having a noble purpose. Other organizations’ have to work harder to create a compelling purpose (some adopt emotionally loaded external causes). Letting people in on the BIG picture and convincing them of its merits converts your staff from stone-cutters to cathedral builders.
2nd Commandment: Set Crystal Clear Goalposts (then get off the pitch)
Once the BIG Picture has been clarified, people need to know their ‘role in the show’. Am I the goalkeeper or the centre forward? Ambiguity around personal goals, leads to anxiety, misplaced effort and lost productivity. Crystal clear goalposts are the building blocks of high performance. So, ‘how do you establish the correct ‘bar height? Do we look at the concept of being ‘best-in-locality’ (the best menswear shop in Grafton Street), best-in-class (the best menswear shop in the world) or ‘World-Class’ (an unmatched provider of customer service)? The answer here is often determined by your starting point (where you are today). Once the goals are crystal clear, good managers then get off the pitch.
Every Saturday morning, swarms of amateur soccer players descend on St Anne’s Park in Clontarf. On the touchline, the managers incite the players to deliver high performance. The role of these managers is to create self-sufficiency in the players; even where the players are performing poorly, the managers seldom don a jersey and take to the field. In too many business organizations’, managers misunderstand their role and try to be player/manager. The best companies set clear goalposts for people with adequate control mechanisms to monitor performance. Then they get off the pitch.
3rd Commandment: Turbo Charge your Organization with Project Teams
It‘s difficult to find a current management magazine which doesn’t make reference to the ‘wisdom’ of teamworking. From the early concept of Quality Circles (circa 1970) to more recent experimentation with self–direction, teamworking can positively affect morale, innovation and productivity. While the evidence to support the benefits of teamworking is impressive, it raises a puzzling question; why do so few organizations’ use teams? Ed Lawler (University of Southern California) suggests an answer: “Teams are the Ferraris of work design. They’re high performance, but high maintenance.” In practice teamworking is difficult to maintain. Full team–based organizations’ are complex social systems. To survive, they require significant support including rewards that reinforce teamwork, an effective meeting/communications structure and a supportive culture. While most references to teamworking mention the upsides, few dwell on the downsides — the significant level of energy that needs to be invested to make this work.
Turbo-Charged Project Teams: The development ‘Turbo–charged’ Project Teams offers a mechanism to get the benefits of teamworking while avoiding the constraints — the organizational equivalent of ice cream without calories! Project teams differ from work teams in that they are set up to tackle a specific problem or difficulty. The team remains in existence for as long as the problem remains; when the problem is solved, the team disbands. By their nature, project teams are focused and become ‘turbo-charged’ e.g. move to high performance levels quickly. This structure offers three specific benefits:
Bolted On: Given that project teams are ‘bolted on’ to the existing organization architecture, they don’t need a cultural shift to support them.
Fast Performance: ‘Turbo–charged’ project teams perform quickly.
Safe Experiment: The short shelf–life of project teams provides a safe mechanism for organizations’ to experiment with the concept of full team–based working.
4th Commandment: Let Everyone Wear a White Coat
In my first ‘real’ job (car seat manufacturing), all of the employees wore colour coded uniforms. The ‘workers’ (like myself) wore blue overalls; the foremen had brown coats; the supervisors were kitted out in white; the management sported double-breasted suits (the fashion at that time). This ordered hierarchy was an efficient way to denote ‘who did what’. Yet, while it had the benefit of clarity, it was based on an underlying (mistaken) assumption that the workforce could be divided into two camps— the inspired (who wore suits/white/brown) and the perspired (who wore blue). As one of the perspired, I had first-hand experience of that philosophy in action; it was demeaning and counter-productive (people found ways to beat the control systems in place, including an elaborate way of climbing over the 10 foot high back wall to ‘escape’ the monotony). Today successful organizations’ have overthrown that false division of labour and let everyone (metaphorically) wear white coats. They recognise that giving up control in a narrow sense allows them to gain control in a broader sense. Giving people influence (e.g. over the quality of the product or service they deliver) lies at the root of building spirit, morale and commitment. Reducing traditional controls, shifting the location of decision-making and getting people ‘stitched into’ the process (collectively called empowerment) are key tools. Those shop floor workers ‘hands’ are attached to a useful brain. Ceding control to the line is a key departure from past management practice. In manufacturing plants, it’s possible to have 700 Quality Control Inspectors (read as employees), rather than 2 Quality Control ‘policemen.’ Exactly the same point applies in the ‘back-offices’ of white-collar organizations’. During a school play in Belgrove Junior school in Clontarf, the most talented kids got the lead parts (Ugly Sisters etc.). My kid was in the chorus line (reflecting the general talent level in our family). She sang: “We’re in the chorus, we stand in a row. We all have talent — in case you don’t know”! It’s not just the lead players who need to be switched on, but every single cast member. Let everyone ‘wear a white coat’.
5th Commandment: Unchain the Right hand side of the Brain
Ask 100 people “In what profession do you need to be creative?” and 90%+ will tell you ‘Advertising’, ‘Marketing’ & ‘R&D’. Yet creativity is as necessary in the dustbin collection arena of Dublin City Council as it is in the Nassau Space Agency. All organizations’ are in business to satisfy a customer need — creating and delivering quality products or services. The smartest organizations’ recognise this as a never ending goal i.e. “There is no finish line”. In some cultures this is a given e.g. the concept of Kaizan from Japan; in others, managers need to ‘socially engineer’ this culture and develop appropriate reward systems to support. The best organizations’ release oil gushers of creativity and high performance. Example: We worked with a client company (120 employees) in the financial services sector. Using a creative technique from the world of advertising, the group managed to generate 4000+ ideas for customer service improvement (4,000 is not a typo) in a single-day session. These ideas were subsequently ranked with circa 7% (the A+ ideas) being implemented. Systematically communicating the outcome to staff who participated — guaranteed that people were switched on for the ‘next round’. Bottom Line: Senior Management don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.
Pre-planning Creativity: One of the key lessons about creativity in organizations’ is that it is not something which ‘just happens’. It’s actually consciously planned. At first glance this idea seems contradictory. Can a ‘creative process’ be pre-planned? Yes it can. Top companies are better at innovating, not because they hire more innovative people, but because they are better organized to be innovative. Through a range of ‘shake the tree’ events, they systematically produce crop after crop of new ideas. Many people will already be familiar with the system in operation at 3M where people are allowed to devote 15% of their time and budget to any project that they wish. This institutionalized lawlessness (internally known as ‘bootlegging’) would not be tolerated in most organizations’. Continuous improvement is key to the ongoing success of high-performance organizations’. Rosabeth Moss Kanter said “the only sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to learn faster that your competitors.” Great organization leaders unchain the right hand side of the brain of their employees. Do you?
6th Commandment: People will embrace change if they construct it
Successful organizations’ have an ability to constantly introduce changes in work practices, procedures and products. In the best-managed companies, change is not viewed as the equivalent of a visit to the Dentist for root canal work! Involvement of people in the planning of change is a key factor in the acceptance of this. I never tire of saying that the first principal in psychology is: “People don’t resist their own ideas”. It’s not so much that people resist change; they resist being changed. Sometimes they resist it because they don’t believe that the specific actions proposed are necessary. Yet underneath this ‘rational’ resistance, people are often reluctant to embrace fundamental structural shifts because they feel disenfranchised; it’s not ‘theirs’. To label this as ‘getting people to buy in’ is somewhat trite. It does not do justice to what is a deep psychological need — putting a personal stamp on important life events. The most effective change managers distinguish between controlling people and controlling results. In the USA, Dwight Eisenhower used to demonstrate the art of leadership with a piece of string. He’d put it on the table and say: “Pull it, and it will follow you anywhere you wish. Push it, and it’ll go nowhere at all.”
Example: The offices in one of our client companies needed to be rearranged with people moving between floors. While people had ‘more room’ under the new arrangement (desk space, floor space, filing etc.), the level of grumbling was high. Complaints ranged from the lack of ventilation, to distance from the coffee machine. During a second move the company employed a different strategy. The new office layout was posted on a huge ‘blow-up’ and left in the middle of the old floor for 1 month. During this time employees could comment on the suggested layout and several minor modifications were made. The second move was a resounding success, with the virtual absence of ‘moaning’ about the new locations. The message is simple but not simplistic. Take the time to stitch people into the change process at the front end or take the trouble (and twice the time) to fire-fight this later. Caveat: Participation in input doesn’t imply equity in decision-making. Managers make the final call (unless you are running a Kibbutz).
7th Commandment: Become an Ambiguity Sponge
In a world where change is the only certainty, a key dilemma for managers is to predict the future. As Mark Twain said “I was delighted to be able to answer quickly. I said I don’t know”. Great managers act as an ‘Ambiguity Sponge’, soaking up the concerns and the normal uncertainties of business life while providing a safe space for employees to work. There are two elements to the provision of short-term certainty.
Communication = Religion: The first is to communicate, communicate, communicate. Mostly face to face (avoid lobbing ‘hand grenades’ into the email system; use this to confirm information already communicated). Some managers are fearful of communication when there is an element of uncertainty: ‘we don’t have all the answers.’ It’s a mistake. In an information vacuum, ‘answers’ will be provided by the grapevine or by a third party organization. Let’s assume that you can’t answer the question “What will we do if the FDA don’t approve our new drug for killing all known dog fleas?” You then address this issue: “This is what we need you to do to make a difference in the next 3— 4 weeks”.
Worst Case: In counselling, a technique sometimes deployed is to ask the client to envisage the worst-case scenario: “If your kids all decided to move to Argentina tomorrow, what would happen then?” (for some, this might be a cause for great celebration). A similar technique can be used to good effect in managing. Where there’s a ‘felt threat’ to income or job security (however distant) the best companies address this up front (“In the unlikely event of a redundancy situation occurring, this is the way it will be handled…”). Having the courage to confront the issue openly — and laying out a plan to resolve the ‘worst case’ — allows people to let go of the uncertainty and focus on the day job. Providing short-term certainty, by acting as a sponge for ambiguity, is a key managerial task.
8th Commandment : Expect ‘A’? Then reward ‘A’
A fundamental management principle = what you reward is what gets delivered. It sounds simple. Devise a reward system that reinforces what you want to achieve. The problem here is that ‘what’s actually being rewarded’ in an organization is sometimes difficult to define. A couple of years back my then 6 year old daughter had a recurring problem. Each evening, about 1 hour after she went to bed, she would complain of stomach pains. Over a 2-month period this necessitated two trips to the local GP, one night-time GP house-call and one ‘midnighter’ to Temple Street Children’s hospital. Frustrated (because there were no obvious physiological symptoms), we tried the positive reinforcement route. Trouble-free nights were rewarded with a packet of popcorn the next day (technically seen as ‘sweets’ and highly regarded). Within 1 week the problem magically went away (watch this space for the next installment: “How we weaned her off the popcorn”).
Many organizations’ are the commercial equivalent of ‘bad parents’. They reward (heap attention on) inappropriate behaviour like those pretend stomach cramps. The best-managed organizations’ have an explicit scorecard of high performance standards (both outputs and managerial behaviour) which they measure and directly reward. In the worst managed organizations’, rewards are based on a combination of perceived performance and personal lobbying (when asked to detail the ‘criteria for success’ in one client company, a manager replied “Get a timer on the light switch in your office and make it look like you’re working late every night”). The best companies communicate what’s important and measure/reward this. Don’t let the cynics win!
9th Commandment: Count the Score at the end of the Match
Keeping score and giving feedback on results seems so self evident that we could almost omit it as a key principle in managing people. Almost. Staying close to the business ensures that results are never too far off track and avoids an end of the year ‘crop failure’ which can so easily occur in businesses where the ‘score’ is not explicit (e.g. try to measure embedded value in the pensions industry). The best-managed companies understand that there are critical and non-critical performance measures. They have mechanisms to capture this information, distil it into lay language and graphically transmit this to the staff.
Critical Performance: When driving to work there are a couple of key car performance measures.
- What speed is the car travelling?
- Do I have enough fuel to get to the destination?
While there is a myriad of additional information (car tyre pressures, outside air temperature), it’s not core. You need a scorecard to differentiate core from non-core information and constantly communicate this to staff. Poorly managed companies either try to overcompensate by measuring and recording everything or leave an information vacuum (when we conduct audits, staff often feel that the company is making ‘fabulous profits’). The source for information in some companies is through the Trade Unions, with managers delegating this vital ingredient of their role to shop stewards or full-time officials. Feedback acts as a self-correcting mechanism. Empowered with the correct information, employees will find ways to ‘fix’ performance deviations. What’s needed is a ‘dashboard’ that’s understandable and accessible. Trade off the potential loss of commercially sensitive information against the positives of employee support and performance. Here’s the skinny. Count the score at the end of the game and tell the players. Simple, isn’t it?
10th Commandment” Celebrate the Success (“Pump up the volume”)
Most people want to be appreciated for their contribution. Yet, the concept of ‘celebrating success’ for many managers seems somehow ‘over the top’. In contrast, we have little problem using the psychology of reinforcement outside of work. I observed a ‘hard nosed’ manager becoming ecstatic about a simple line drawing of a house completed by his 5 year old son (the kid was no budding Picasso). The ‘artist’ was dragged to the newsagent and rewarded with a MAGNUM (€2.50 for those of you not in the know about these ‘health foods’). Several weeks later I mentioned this to him as an example of positive reinforcement.
“That’s different, he’s only a kid”
“Why is it different?”
“People at work get paid to do what they’re told”
“And do you want them to be highly productive?”
“Of course” (somewhat more tentatively)
“Then why don’t you recognise it when they achieve something significant?”
“They wouldn’t like it — it’s embarrassing”
“For you or for them?”
“Look, all this being Mr. Nice is not my style. I call a spade a spade. That’s the way I am.”
The best-managed companies understand that ‘attention – only when I screw up’ is a big source of dissatisfaction. They actively create heroes and champions. They make the extraordinary ordinary, highlighting small success stories around cost improvement and customer service. They look for ways to celebrate success and pump up the volume. They don’t fear disturbing 50-year-old pay relativities to which poorly performing companies are held hostage. They even make work fun (spread the word).
Conclusion: A manager is defined as “someone who gets her/his work done through others”. How? You can put a human face on this by asking the simple question “how do I like to be managed?” and applying the answers to people who work for you. Leading people requires the ability to generate high levels of energy, to focus that energy on selected goals and to sustain enthusiasm through the ‘white water’ of normal business life. Done well, it can unlock phenomenal performance. A combination of technology, better-educated workers and sophisticated systems for getting-work-done have made the old ‘just-tell-them-what-to-do’ style of management obsolete. The ‘10 Commandments’ detailed above offers a checklist for you to test current practices. The prize for getting it right may be no less than the very survival of your organization.
PS Lighter Note: Lets go completely ‘non-PC’ this week. Do you agree? Thanks to Kevin Griffen…
Q: What’s the difference between a boyfriend and husband?
A: 45 minutes.
Q: How do you get a sweet little 80-year-old lady to say the F….. Word?
A: Get another sweet little 80-year-old lady to yell *BINGO*!
From Aidan Cahill: In today’s business world the MARKETING issue can be confusing. People continually ask for a simple explanation of ‘Marketing.’ Well, your prayers have been answered…
- You’re a woman and you see a handsome guy at a party. You go up to him and say, “I’m fantastic in bed.” That’s Direct Marketing.
- You’re at a party with a bunch of friends and see a handsome guy. One of your friends goes up to him and, pointing at you, says, “She’s fantastic in bed.” That’s Advertising.
- You see a handsome guy at a party. You go up to him and get his telephone number. The next day you call and say, “Hi, I’m fantastic in bed.” That’s Telemarketing.
- You see a guy at a party; you straighten your dress. You walk up to him and pour him a drink. You say, “May I?” and reach up to straighten his tie, brushing your breast lightly against his arm and then say, “By the way, I’m fantastic in bed.” That’s Public Relations.
- You’re at a party and see a handsome guy. He walks up to you and says, “I hear you’re fantastic in bed.” That’s Brand Recognition.
- You’re at a party and see a handsome guy. He fancies you, but you talk him into going home with your friend. That’s a Sales Rep.
- Your friend can’t satisfy him so he calls you. That’s Tech Support.
- You’re on your way to a party when you realize that there could be handsome men in all these houses you’re passing. So you climb onto the roof of one situated towards the center and shout at the top of your lungs, “I’m fantastic in bed!” That’s Facebook.
- You are at a party; this attractive older man walks up to you and grabs your ass. That’s Donald Trump.
- You didn’t mind it at the time. But twenty years later your attorney decides you were offended and you are awarded a major settlement. That’s America !
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