Organizational evolution

A little while ago I started a topic on “Why smart people defend bad ideas.” After some of my recent work touched closely on similar topics I felt the urge to put down ink and revisit the whole subject in more depth.

Scott Berkun brings up some good points that are all too often at the root of an organization’s problems. Why do so many companies today pursue wildly optimistic or even pipe dream plans? Why is so much effort invested in seemingly random direction? And perhaps most important, how can these out of control organizations see the light and get back on track?

Most of the time I believe the problem — and its solution — comes down to understanding the people in the organization. Not long ago I had the pleasure of experiencing an organization of nearly 850 people with a development group of close to 300 people that used XP (Extreme Programming) as a top-down mandate throughout the company. The amazing thing is, it worked — there was chaos, there was limited visibility into the long term future and a host of other problems. Yet at the same time everyone in the organization was so empowered to get the job done that it created a huge sense of ownership. It worked because the people were brilliant on the whole — it was the right mix. In contrast and more recently I’ve seen a largely XP approach completely fail in an organization of about 100 people with a 20 person development group. Why the disparity?

I don’t believe it’s because one company had smarter or intrinsically better employees. Both companies have very talented individuals. It’s not as simple as choosing “smart” people. A “smart person” is an over generalization. For example, in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid David N. Perkins writes “a strong sense involves recurrent foolishness that seems, in principle, within the intellectual reach of the person to discern.” In other words, a person can be really smart but not know how to engage their smartness. In so much as this happens, that is “stupidity,” and it can happen with smart people just as much as anyone else.

The conditions and environment greatly affect the ability of a person to function well. In one environment an individual may be able to channel and focus their energies — while another leaves that same person flailing about trying to find a purpose.

Perkins lists a number of attributes that often lead to poor decision making in smart people. Some of them you will likely recognize as traits that occasionally show up around the work place. Impulsiveness, neglect, procrastination, vacillation (dithering), backsliding (succumbing to old habits), indulgence, overdoing (obsessiveness), and walking the edge. These are the danger signs, the red flags that warn us that something isn’t right.

In working with different organizations it quickly becomes clear that the environment is created by the people within in. Certainly, management has a stronger influence on environment — and, consequently, can easily create negative influences that cause complete failure to deliver. More often, there is a slight disparity between management and team. More than anything this stems from an inadequate understanding of all the parts — and in this case, the “parts” are the people that make up the organization.

There are simple tools for combating these negative influences and ultimately eradicating “stupid” decisions. The near-term goal of these strategies is simple: To create a collaborative, unified environment where the organization executes as a whole. At the root of this lies empowerment and ownership. Individuals that take ownership in their efforts demonstrate interest in achieving a positive outcome. Likewise, the ability to achieve this outcome is mandatory if we are to avoid a sense of apathy and the opposite of the desired affect.

Empowerment of the individual means creating a holistic environment. Avoiding “siloing” within an organization in favor of collaboration is critical. Creating an environment that fosters mentorship and cross-team collaboration generates creative thinking. Creative thinking leads to ownership and a vested interest in the outcome of a problem — and this, of course, leads to involvement and an underlying desire to meet attainable goals. It also opens the door to accepting challenge — an open, collaborative environment is one where individuals are open to seek new challenges. Challenge leads to ambition to learn and grow, another benefit of an overall, holistic environment.

Of course setting lofty goals to achieve this kind of organization is one thing and executing it is another. Identifying the problem is the first step. Look for warning signs, and don’t let them run rampant in an organization. Fix the problem — we spend a third of our lives at work. It should be an enjoyable experience.

ed: Seth Godin’s blog had an interesting post recently, highlighting the difference between vertical and horizontal knowledge. This seems to be closely related to siloing and collaboration, respectively.

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