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Passion, People and Principles

Getting an Organization to Stretch

post # 215 — October 16, 2006 — a Managing post

I’m always fascinated that we all keep trying things that don’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 “selling the dream.” 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, “do it for the glory of the group” 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: “Do these things and we’ll pay you.” 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 “Otis Redding problem,” based on a line from the song “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” — “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I’ll remain the same.”

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. “Do it for the glory of the organization, but by the way we’ll pay you less if you don’t do it!” 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:

  1. Do you agree that these approaches are very common?
  2. Do you agree that these approaches usually fail?
  3. Why do people keep trying them?
  4. 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 they’re a new leader) often feels that they are different. That even though this didn’t work in the past, their relationship with their staff is different, their charisma is different, their predecessor didn’t understand the organization the way they do, etc…. Another reason, in my opinion, is that often times CEO’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 – it’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 isn’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

Ric said:

1. Yes

2. Yes

3. They know no better, and/or don’t learn from history and the mistakes of others.

4. Tell people what the desired outcome is, and allow them to find a way to it. That’s a bit simplistic, I’ll admit, but people have to feel that they have some say in HOW they work. MOST people, I find, are keen enough to do a good job, and smart enough to know what should or shouldn’t be done, that they don’t need to be micromanaged – especially in workplaces like a professional practice.

posted on October 16, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Ric, I think you have to do a little more than TELL people what the desired outcome is. I think they have to understand it, accept it and want it. So, i think management needs to be good at helping people understand WHY it is worth pursuing the goal. Mangement also needs to make sure that that “WHY” also has a component of why it is good for the individual. (Why would you wanat to strtech – what’s in it for you? ) Just because it’s good for the orhganization doesn’t mean people will pursue it.

posted on October 16, 2006

Brett M said:

Successfully stretching an organization is like building a better kisser. Although there are certain fundamentals, feedback, vision, passion; sometimes it works — sometimes it fizzles out. Stretching an organization based on a ‘vision’ or a ‘technocratic’ equation fails to account for the chemistry between people. For an organization to be successfully stretched, a leader has to combine the fundamentals with the chemistry to create “something special”. Flowers are good; however, the better kisser knows if she likes roses or tulips. Leaders would be better of if they focused less on a specific approach, and more on customizing their style to the internal dynamics unique to every organization.

posted on October 16, 2006

James Bullock said:

1 – Yes.

2 – Yes.

3 – Because they are conceptually appealing and personally comfortable. Conceptually appealing, the first enlists the “great leader” model, and of course the leader is the one with the vision. Everybody likes to be a hero, especially when they are in charge of the strategy party, while other folks have to take the hill. The technocratic approach is conceptually appealing because it reduces the complexities of an organization, in principle, to something analytically oriented. An organization is at least a dozen things in addition to what you can analytically model.

The two are personally comfortable because in the vision case, the leader (so called) isn’t on the hook for making the results happen, or indeed undergoing any personal change. From their safe, comfortable, evaluative vantage point – the one they’re already occupying – they point out the changes other people have to undertake and what success looks like . . . for them. The technocratic approach is comfortable because it is analytical. It lets “leaders” use comfortable skills, and insulates them from the other aspects of what they are proposing. Human consequences, for example.

4 – What works is enlisting people. You can’t get other people to do anything. They decide to. When they voluntarily enlist in a particular goal, good things happen. Otherwise, the best you’ll get is malicious compliance, while they preserve other rewards they’ve become attached to – tenure, or similar. The leader’s job then becomes declaring what we’re about, not a “vision” but why we’re here, as a group, together. That doesn’t have to be nobel, like world peace. It can be instrumental, like “to make pots of money and show off how smart we are.” The point is to put it out there so people can enlist. You also have to pay attention to the enlistment and contributions you get. Doesn’t mean setting up a technocratic reward system. Does mean asking, all the time: “How does this help with Our Agreed Goal?”

So, from what works another temptation is clear. What works is close in appearance to the shallow mechanical approaches of a “vision” and reward measures. Anybody who’s been in the room for five minutes, however, can tell the difference.

Along with Kohn, a related book is Austin’s “Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations” which is mostly about how that doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, sign me: “Been there. Done that.” at least at a department level. Unfortunately, the mere fact of success in terms of objective performance generally doesn’t stop the People In Charge(tm) from declaring that now that it is working, visions must be promoted, and measures imposed. All to “support” what was already working. It turns out the compulsions of conceptual appeal and similar out weigh outright performance, at least once you get out of a hole. Been there, done that, too. I don’t have an answer to that part other than “Select bosses smart enough to leave alone what’s working, whether they understand it or not.

posted on October 16, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

Maybe it’s a case of timing. I remember reading a study that talked about successful behavioural change often taking place during organisational crises (e.g. on the brink of collapse).

In the successful cases, the CEO would “plant the seed” over a period of time, but would wait until some kind of organisational crisis occurred before trying to implement it. Often, the change was only distantly related to the solution needed to fix the problem, but the crisis opened people up to new ideas. It was implemented in parallel with other changes required to fix the problem.

I suppose it’s a bit like the fat smoker. If you are ready to quit smoking and go on a diet, you might also be open to, say, donating to charity as well, if your wife had been talking to you about it for awhile.

It might be a bit hard to implement if you are already travelling well but want people to give you “even more”. Perhaps you could think about “manufacturing” a problem? Is that ethical?

posted on October 16, 2006

Dustin Staiger said:

I think the issue is we have the wrong answer for the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Here, we have two answers:

1)Help the organization succeed (Problem=people are less and less enthralled with institutionalism)

2) Make more money (Problem=There are a lot of things I could do to make more money… most of them I still don’t want to do)

Organizational goals need to line up more with individual goals. If I can show an employee how success will allow him to spend more time with his children, that may motivate him more than a $5,000 bonus. Same with showing an employee how she can enhance her career, serve a charity, impact the community, change the industry, etc.

Sure, financial compensation may be necessary… but it shouldn’t necessarily be the focus. By knowing our employees, validating their goals, and acknowledging their acheivements – we tether personal success with organizational success. So, as our people grow so does our organization.

posted on October 17, 2006