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Adhering to agreed standards

post # 447 — October 11, 2007 — a Strategy and the Fat Smoker post

Adhering to agreed standards

If sticking to diet and exercise programs is difficult for an individual, the challenge is exponentially more difficult for a group. Agreements on group strategy might be reached, but there is always the problem of ensuring that everyone (powerful people included) act in ways consistent with the strategy.

The most basic (and blunt) instruments for achieving this are pay schemes (reward the right behavior) and terminations (fire those who don’t act in ways consistent with the strategy.) It is amazing how many firms still rely just on those two tools.

A third approach is to try and establish agreement on “values,” achieving performance consistency through “ideological influence.”

To make this approach work, it must be recognized that something is a value if and only if you are willing to enforce it. A value is NOT a high aspiration you plan to strive for (that’s a dream). A value is a non-negotiable minimum standard to which everyone has agreed to comply.

However, the agreement alone is clearly insufficient. To have values, there must be a system for responding to and eliminating non-compliance. Such a system would, preferably, begin gently with a closed-door office visit from a group leader (or manager) and a counseling session to provide help would result.

If this does not induce compliance within a finite time, then the group must be prepared to contemplate exit — asking people who do not live up to standards to leave.

However, I am continually surprised when firm and group leaders tell me they don’t have the time to (a) spot non-compliance with standards and (b) devote the time to help people who are not meeting standards get back on track.

Without having this time available to manage, they are thrown back on using the pay scheme to deal with egregious departures from standards, and no system for dealing with minor departures.

The question then gets posed: what else can a group or firm do to ensure that its standards are, in fact executed? Beyond, pay, termination and managerial attention, what else is there?

Some groups try to argue that peer pressure can create a culture, even if no one person has the responsibility (and time) to monitor (and follow up on) the new behaviors.

I’m skeptical. Peer pressure can work to sustain a culture but is weak when introducing a new standard,

For example, in the face of the war for talent, many organizations want their senior people to live to higher standards in coaching, supervising and mentoring juniors. But if it’s left to the group to police itself in this “new” behavior, I think it unlikely that higher standards of excellence will result. More likely would be a “you forgive me and I’ll forgive you” culture.

As we know, new (visible) scorecards can help. Even if there is not managerial time to spot and follow up on non-compliance, a new metric tracking the new behavior (if appropriately visible) can create the incentive to change.

But still I get asked “What else?” We know what we should do, my clients say, we’ve agreed among ourselves to do it, but we don’t have the managerial culture that allows group leaders to spend time monitoring the group.(!)

So, they ask, what else can we do?

What would YOU say?


Mike said:

An intriguing question. I have been racking my brain and can’t come up with an answer. To go back to your analogy – wanting to implement change without having your managers manage is akin to wanting to lose weight without changing your eating habits or exercising. There are no magic diet pills (that won’t kill you).

My high school chemistry/physics teacher taught me a very important lesson – everything in nature goes to entropy if left to its own devices. Everything, including humans, are created to exist in as lazy a fashion as possible. Humans are the only creature/system in nature we know of that can choose to fight this tendancy, but it takes active management (on an individual level or a system level).

posted on October 11, 2007

Heidi Ehlers said:

Create a larger than life goal, a plan to achieve that goal, an agreement that this is a goal that would inspire everyone to achieve it, communicating the goal and the plan, and reminding transgressors what they’ve agreed to, so why aren’t they behaving in a way that is congruent with their commitment?

Most companies don’t provide their talent a context that they are working within. So they don’t have the perspective to understand how non-compliance to a standard today affects the outcome relative to achieving a goal in 18 months.

It is the responsibility for leaders to provide that perspective.

I look at restaurants that are well run.

I used to think “Wow, how do they attract such incredible people to keep this restaurant running at perfection?”

After closer observation I noticed that the leader/owner/manager of that restaurant provided REAL time A LA MINUTE feedback when the smallest standard was breached. Right then and there.

I’ve seen companies and careers turn around when an impossible goal is created – AND the plan to reach it.

Falling short of achieving a goal is never a failure – again it provides perspective and context.

Not having one and not communicating how every 1,000 mile journey begins with a single step is.

A dream with a date becomes a goal.

A goal broken into steps becomes a plan.

A plan set into action makes a dream come true.

~ heidi

posted on October 11, 2007

Jordan Furlong said:

There are no silver bullets. Even the best-intentioned, most conscientious professional regularly slips back from the high performance standards he or she tries to maintain. So to begin with, minimize the degree of slippage by hiring and keeping as many of these best-intentioned, conscientious people as possible — make character and professionalism a keystone element of recruitment, if it isn’t already, so you’ll have less cattle-herding to do. From that point on, it’s a matter of managerial responsibility to monitor an employee’s adherence to the cultural standard, pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of that adherence, and regularly meet the employee to encourage, coach, push and occasionally remonstrate with them. Managers should act as “personal trainers” for the employees they supervise — watch, analyze, suggest, exhort and set new goals, all aligned with the organizational culture but with an eye fixed firmly on helping the employee become a better professional. Take “enforcement” out of the managerial vocabulary, because no one likes getting enforced. Use the term “professional performance standard enhancement,” and remind the employee that he or she personally benefits today and tomorrow by maintaining and improving those standards.

I don’t buy the contention that managers don’t have time to do this. A “managerial culture” that doesn’t allow managers to encourage the maintenance and improvement of employees’ professional performance standards is broken — an inherent failure, as fatal as a quality control breakdown on the factory floor. Organizations must prioritize the continuous enhancement of their employees’ ability to deliver a professional performance and to constantly strive towards self-improvement. That requires enormous amounts of time, effort, relationship-building skills and sincerity on managers’ part, and I’m not saying it’s easy to find that. But I also don’t see any other realistic route to excellence, especially with a new generation of workers seeking an employer genuinely invested in getting the best out of them. If you want a great organizational culture that reflects the highest standards, make it a 24/7, red-alert, career-breaking priority for managers.

posted on October 11, 2007

Harry Alexander said:

Please enter your comment – RE YOUR QUESTION “WHAT ELSE?”

Whatever the “agreed standards” are, they must meet some practical guidelines such as:

– is there a personal “buy in”? Most often, these “strategies” are dead from the get go if your people don’t enthusiastically identify with them!

– is there an education program if specific knowledge and skills are required – such as minimum sales activities?

– is there a significant reward attached other than keeping your job? AND YES, IT SHOULD BE “VISIBLE” TO ALL WHEN SUCH AN REWARD IS RECEIVED!! Lastly, I fully agree that it is not a matter of management not having the time but rather being motivated to make the time because such rewards are available to them as well as the troops!

– is their an objective measurement program coupled with a real time feedback / management response?


posted on October 11, 2007

Arnoud Martens said:

If you need to spend too much time enforcing standards this is a signal that:

  • the standards are too high
  • the standards are not well understood or supported

In both cases staff is not comfortable with the standards. So you need to lower your standards, raise the competence of your staff or communicate the standards better to gain more acceptance.

Of course standards should be set to raise the bar. Raise the bar too much and the standards will backfire.

posted on October 11, 2007

Brad Farris said:

What get’s measured gets done, so haveing a key metric is key. That said, my favorite tools for compliance all involve peer pressure.

1. Have a meeting to review the reporting metrics. Ask each person to explain what they have done to affect their score, and what they will do over the next several weeks (until the next meeting) to keep improving it.

2. Go back to Kindergarden and post or distribute the metrics for each person. (A chart with gold stars usually gets the message across.)

3. Lavish public praise on those who succeed in improving their metric. Privately coach those that don’t.

Of course if you still have non-compliance when these public measures are taken, then the person is really saying, “I don’t want to be a part of this group.” You need to help them to get thier wish.

High performers WANT feedback (especially early in their career) and they want to be in a culture that promotes feedback and has good concequences for those who don’t meet the standards of the group. I belive that a firm that deals with these issues will attract better talent.

posted on October 12, 2007