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This Is The Perfect Opportunity To Recreate Business

In the Fall 2008 edition of the OD Practitioner [membership required], Peter Block writes a provocative article entitled Nothing is Next where he explores emerging trends in organizations. Block is one of the chief influences (along with Meg Wheatley and Bob Sutton) in my own work and he doesn’t disappoint here. One of the trends he highlights is Fearful Employees.

In a world of increasing consolidation and lessened customer choice, employees have been commoditized. Workers are treated as costs, not assets. The faster we can automate processes, outsource functions and send questions to a website, the happier we are. It is cost effective, but has created widespread insecurity so that people are as afraid of their bosses now as they were forty years ago when I began this work.

I had thought that when team building, larger group methods, decades of employee involvement and the results gained by the quality movement had become mainstream and part of the common knowledge, we would care more for our employees. I would have expected we might have reduced the social distance between levels. We would act as partners in our relationship with the boss. We would feel the place we work is where we belong. I don’t see it, maybe I am missing it, but the alienation and caution people feel about the workplace seems too painfully common.

He surfaces a disappointment that I think is shared by many who care about improving workplace dynamics and employee engagement. And it’s exacerbated now with the economy the way it is. Companies are in full survival mode with their focus squarely on managing through the short-term. Nothing wrong with that in principle; it would be irresponsible to not act on current business conditions. However, when does action merely become reaction? Was all this talk about employee empowerment and engagement just a bunch of crap, conditional on sunny economic conditions? Time to go back to the comfortable business basics of last century?

The real question that organizations of all types need to ask right now is…what is the opportunity in front of you right now to (re)create a business that changes the relationships with employees and customers?

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When Bad Systems Happen To Good People

Want to know the power of a system? Consider this…if you place a good manager within a bad system, they will founder nine times out of ten. Same goes for individuals; a bad system will dilute a superstar employee’s potential. Yet, how many times are we willing to give up on, demote, or release an individual rather than take a good hard look at our own systems? Right…I thought so. Perhaps because it’s easier to level the blame on a person than do the more intensive work of analyzing and overhauling a system that’s ineffective or downright bad. But by focusing on individuals rather than systems, managers maintain the idiotic charade that makes it look like they’re being proactive by rooting out the crappy people when in reality they’re just reapplying lipstick to the pig.

In Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, Jeff Pfeffer and Robert Sutton write that systems trump individual effort on a regular basis. They argue that “bad systems do far more damage than bad people, and a bad system can make a genius look like an idiot. Try redesigning systems and jobs before you decide that a person is ‘crappy.'”

What are examples of bad systems? Here’s one that plagues non-profits and for-profits alike: silos. I’ve personally witnessed innovative and resourceful individuals rendered ineffective within a siloed organization. Yet, when it was time for the annual review (there’s another example of a bad system), these individuals had to take the lion’s share of the blame for their performance failings. It’s rather like giving a racer a Ferrari and then telling them to perform at their highest level on a dirt and gravel track.

So, then these individuals are labeled as crappy people, the kind you want to figure out how move off your team or out of your organization. But here’s the thing…that outlook will never lead to anything other than mediocrity in your organization. Consider again what Bob Sutton wrote a couple of years ago on the subject:

The worst part about focusing on keeping out crappy people, however, is that it reflects a belief system that “the people make the place.” The implication is that, once you hire great people and get rid of the bad ones, your work is pretty much done. Yet if you look at large scale studies in everything from automobile industry to the airline industry, or look at Diane Vaughn’s fantastic book on the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the well-crafted report written by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the evidence is clear: The “rule of law crappy systems” trumps the “rule of crappy people.”

If you’re a senior manager and all of this sounds achingly familiar, don’t despair…let’s improve the system. Begin doing something that most organizations don’t do which is take a holistic and deep-penetrating assessment of your people-systems.

  • Review your organization’s structure. Is your organization siloed or structurally ineffective?
  • Review your organization’s social networks. Do your employees have quality relationships with others outside of their working groups? Do they know how to communicate effectively, have constructive conflicts, and build new connections?
  • Review your organization’s knowledge management infrastructure. Can your people access other individuals easily and openly? Can your people access not only the knowledge of others but expertise that may exist outside of the job description?
  • Review your organization’s learning systems. Do your employees know how to learn and share that learning in ways that benefits others in the organization?

These four assessment points of your people-system signal just the beginning of change. There’s still much to do to initiate and follow-through with the changes…issues to be addressed in future posts (or contact me for how I can help your organization). But the next time you rant about the underperforming employee or underachieving team, think first about the systems that got them there.

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