Is Your Organization Designed Backwards?


Questions for backwards organiations

Two of the most important and most challenging issues facing executives today are:

1. How to get more productivity from people who are already overworked and “over-processed.”

2. How to satisfy the demand of todayʼs worker to contribute more and to feel more engaged in the process.

Seeing these two challenges you may be asking yourself: “So whatʼs the problem? Management wants more from the employees and employees seem to want to give more.” At first glance, it may not look like there is much of an issue here. But the fact is that these two questions are very much in play in business today in both the executive and the employee circles and both sides are frustrated.

So whatʼs the deal?

It's a matter of perspectives

Take this test sometime in the near future: Ask the people who work with, or for, you a few questions. But first, create a safe environment for them to be honest. Next, include peers and entry-level employees you manage. (Just make sure they are not too new to the organization.) Inform them that you are doing some preliminary research to better understand how you may be able to create a more productive workplace. This will give them an understanding as to why they are being asked to participate. Lastly, you can either ask the questions one-on-one or in small comfortable groups of two or three participants.

Here are the questions:

1. Do you feel you have more to contribute to the organization than your job responsibilities or management will allow?

2. If given the opportunity would you be willing to contribute more to the organization in the areas you enjoy, even if it required some extra effort or more time?

3. What, or where, would you like to contribute that you feel would most benefit the organization?

I bet the answers you got back looked something like this:

1. Of course!
2. Sure!
3. Surprise!

If you set the stage properly many of the answers to Question #3 will not only surprise you but they could also prove to be very revealing. In many cases, the answers to the third question will fall outside of their job responsibilities and will speak to their desire to use skills and talents which their jobs may not call upon and which you didnʼt know they possessed.

They may also share some interesting ideas or insights they have which you would otherwise not have heard. What this brief exercise reveals is that management and employees have very different perspectives on how employees can and should contribute to the organization.

Management has a tendency to look at an employeesʼ impact on the organization based upon their responsibilities. On the other hand, the employees view their impact based upon their capabilities, which is the combination of their responsibilities plus their abilities and interests.

Let's explore this a bit

Managementʼs typical, and natural, perspective is that the employee can best contribute by following processes and procedures; effectively carrying out their duties and responsibilities; by staying in alignment with annual company goals and by not challenging the systems that are in place.

This is not to say that management does not want peopleʼs ideas and contributions, but in the vast majority of cases, they want that input coming forth through designed processes or chains of command. In other words, management is most comfortable having employees contribute through a manageable process.

On the other hand, the employeeʼs perspective is more geared towards being able to engage in more of a “free-range” environment. In fact, studies have shown that as much as 60 percent of the work done in an organization occurs via informal employee networks that operate outside of organizational charts.

This is not to say that people want anarchy, they donʼt. What they want is OXYGEN. They want the room to breathe, to think, to create and to contribute outside of rigid structures that are designed to control everything.

People are naturally very creative and innovative. The problem is that from the time we enter school and long into our business careers we find ourselves in environments that pray at the alters of “Structure” and “Predictability” instead of honoring and nurturing human creativity. Somehow through it all, we lost site that: “Itʼs about the people, stupid!” to paraphrase the Clinton campaign of 1992.

So, from the employeesʼ standpoint, they most value environments which respect their abilities and which afford them the opportunity to contribute, grow and have fun. But management wants to manage its way to greater employee productivity and management is “in charge” and old ways die hard.

So the challenge, in managementʼs view, becomes how it designs systems, or processes, which create freedom. Well, they canʼt. Processes and procedures and rules and requirements simply do not promote an environment of innovation, contribution or collaboration. They stifle them.

So maybe the time for a new paradigm is upon us.

If it's good enough for big blue, is it good enough for you?

I am reminded of the IBM® commercial where people are lying down in a dark room, in perfect rows, in exactly the same position. Each of them has the same headrest and came together, for what I am sure, is a pre-planned session scheduled during a pre-determined time. A man comes in, clicks on the light and asks, somewhat incredulously: “What are you doing?” The answer comes back in a young womanʼs voice: “We are IDEATING.” “About what?” the man asks. “We donʼt know yet,” she answers. To which the man rolls his eyes and says “Good luck.” He then turns off the lights and walks out of the room.

We all see this and we chuckle but do we really get the point? IBM is making fun of management that attempts to release human capabilities and innovation by creating structures and herding people into them. They are also making a very clear statement that this is no longer the way to run a company. More important though is that they are announcing that IBM sees the next horizon and, if you hire them, they will help you transform your organization into one that can operate in the 21st century. Imagine that: Big Blue is actually poking fun at companies who still rely on structure and control to release human potential into their organizations. This is the same company that used to make tens of thousands of employees dress exactly the same way!

If you hadnʼt believed there is an enormous management sea change taking place across American business today, then seeing Big Blue poking fun at companies who use structures to release capabilities into their organizations should get your attention.

So, where do we go from here?

Clearly, managementʼs perspective and tendencies focus upon managing things. But we have seen how creativity and human potential is not bred or released through managed processes and structured systems.

All the data shows, and my experience verifies, that releasing intellectual capabilities, latent talents, and human potential into your organization is never about managing people. Rather it is always about creating environments.

The environment you must seek to create is one which encourages natural participation and exchanges and the free flowing of ideas. To accomplish that the environment must be designed such that people truly believe their thinking and participation is more highly valued than processes, rules, and procedures. They must be given space to “IDEATE” on their own, in their own way and with those they self-select. Then once they have come up with something of value and have vetted it thoroughly amongst themselves, or individually, it can be brought forth into the organizational structures to determine if it has a place in the organization and, if so, how best to implement it.

So, the idea is to create the space for the raw materials of creativity and innovation to be mined and refined. Then use the structures to process them and turn them into assets. Once you begin learning how to create these environments and to work with a new set of priorities you can then overlay many of the same organizational structures, methods, and metrics which you use today to ensure the efficient utilization of these newly mined capabilities... but not before!

The point is not to throw away highly effective and proven business processes. That would be crazy. However, if you want to solve the dual challenge of getting more productivity from your people in a way they want to, and can, contribute you will need to shift management priorities from processes to people.

If you successfully build these environments, the ideas and the energy will come.