Getting an Organization to Stretch
post # 215 — October 16, 2006 — a Managing post
Iâ€™m always fascinated that we all keep trying things that donâ€™t work.
I work quite a lot with CEOs and managing partners, each of whom wants to get their organization to stretch for greater achievement. The two most common approaches they seem to try, at opposite extremes in style, are the Vision and Technocratic approaches.
The Vision approach tries to bring about organizational energy and determination by â€œselling the dream.â€ Managers ask the people in our organization to stretch for ambitious goals and be accountable for higher or different standards, all in the name of achieving fame, glory and riches for the organization.
There would be nothing wrong with this approach -if it worked. However, few of us pass the reality test of actually being able to energize large numbers of other people either through the glamour of the dream we describe or our skill in presenting it.
The sad truth is that we cannot automatically assume that people care enough about the organization to contribute extra energy. It may be a depressing commentary on the human condition, but except in some very special cultures, â€œdo it for the glory of the groupâ€ works on only a very small percentage of people.
The second common managerial approach to creating energy and excitement that I see attempted (a lot of the time) is the Technocratic process. This is made up of three steps: (a) announce goals, (b) put in place new metrics that monitor those goals and (c) design a reward scheme for those who score well on the metrics.
If this were all it took to head an organization, effective managers would be ten-a-penny, and every business school in the world would have to be shut down due to a lack of customers. Contrary to what we are often told (and many people believe) it takes more than a pay scheme to move an organization. (See— or, rather, hear— my podcast on this topic.)
If the Vision approach is too inspirational to work effectively for most of us in the real world, then theTechnocratic approach is too devoid of human feeling to accomplish its goal. In essence it says: â€œDo these things and weâ€™ll pay you.â€ There is nothing illogical about this, but as Alfie Kohn has pointed out in his book Punished by Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), the very act of asking people to do things primarily for the money diverts their attention from any meaning or purpose in what they are doing. As a result, they do it with less passion, care and attention to detail, and performance will, surprisingly, decline, not improve.
There is yet another problem with trying to energize, enthuse and engage an organization through measures and rewards. Itis often true that as strategies accumulate over time, so do reward metrics. New metrics are often added, but only rarely are old ones taken away. Confusion inevitably arises as to which metrics management really wants people to pay attention to.
As a result, people inevitably default to measures that track short-term financials. New, strategic metrics are rarely viewed as equally powerful. On his blog, Stanford professor Bob Sutton describes this as the â€œOtis Redding problem,â€ based on a line from the song â€œSitting on the Dock of the Bayâ€ — â€œI canâ€™t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess Iâ€™ll remain the same.â€
It is worth pointing out that, if the Vision and Technocratic approaches to bringing about organizational energy are difficult to pull off, trying to use them in combination is often a disaster. â€œDo it for the glory of the organization, but by the way weâ€™ll pay you less if you donâ€™t do it!â€ may not be absolutely contradictory, but the tone and style of the messages are completely different. We are unlikely to be effective if we try to inspire and threaten in the same sentence!
Some questions for the community:
- Do you agree that these approaches are very common?
- Do you agree that these approaches usually fail?
- Why do people keep trying them?
- What works?
ann michael said:
Yes — they are very common.
Yes — they usually fail.
I think that one reason people keep using them is that the leader (especially if theyâ€™re a new leader) often feels that they are different. That even though this didnâ€™t work in the past, their relationship with their staff is different, their charisma is different, their predecessor didnâ€™t understand the organization the way they do, etcâ€¦. Another reason, in my opinion, is that often times CEOâ€™s are trying to get FAST results. They think these approaches will radically change ingrained behavior over night. They might actually even see small changes (giving them positive reinforcement) but not realize the change will not be sustainable. Unfortunately, many of us only see what we want to see!
What really works is starting from the beginning (the formation of an organization) to demonstrate and build the right values and culture. That said – itâ€™s a rare opportunity.
Once culture and values are established (formally or informally) they are very hard to change. My opinion is that you have to press on many organizational and behavioral levers consistently and simultaneously.
If higher achievement is the goal: 1) the leader should be visibly stretching for higher achievement and lead by example, 2) the organization should be hiring people that seem (as best as you can determine) to value achievement and growth, 3) the organization should publicly celebrate the behaviors it desires, 4) more importantly, the organization has to come up with some stories — something that isnâ€™t simply a litany of facts stating why it values the behavior — that resonate with people on some kind of emotional level. People often decide to act because of how they feel — not what they think.
There — my (a bit more than) 2 cents on the issue!
Thanks David — this was very thought provoking.
posted on October 16, 2006