Fence Or Foundation?

There is an organizational epidemic that has permeated companies to such a degree, it is nearly unrecognizable. It is sapping the life blood out of companies, and most leaders are completely unaware of it. Organizations are are drip bleeding to death.

What is this leech that is draining the power out of your organization? In a word…systems.

If you think you just heard a collective gasp from the analytical crowd, you’re probably right. I’m not suggesting the abolition of systems on an existential level. I am advocating for re-visiting the motivation behind the systems.

In the West, we like to create a model around an idea that worked and turn it into a system so the results can be replicated and “scalable”…I kinda hate that word. If you have been in the business world for more than a few years, you have seen the best intentions turn into the most steaming pile of bureaucratic dung ever devised by a higher level vertebrate.

The problem is the system was intended to produce results, but was only structured to dictate behavior. Two things a few miles apart often times. We’ve all heard frequently – too frequently sometimes – the top down/bottom up argument. Here is a perfect example where that argument is very relevant.

Systems are usually designed and implemented from the top down to achieve results based on strategy, sales goals, market share, whatever. In other words, it creates a fence within which all behavior must occur and then voil√°…the desired result magically appears from the organizational farm pen that has been created by the system fairy dust. Sound implausible? Good. It really is that silly, yet we keep doing it.

Systems need to be a foundation which supports the desired result, not a fence which limits behavior because it worked somewhere, sometime under some circumstances. Here are a few tips to help create foundational systems instead of restrictive systems.

  • Communicate the desired result – Stop believing that employees are nothing more than organizational chattel. Give the the real poop on the problem or desired end game. You may be surprised how well they take the truth.
  • Ask for ideas – I don’t care how many job descriptions you have written in your career, the person actually doing the job knows it best. Let your people present a possible solution from their perspective. You will be amazed by the creativity that begins to develop within your organization.
  • Be willing to change – What may seem foundational at first can be really restrictive when put into practice. Don’t be afraid to make some adjustments along the way. In my experience, the most restrictive systems were put in place because of fear or a lack of confidence from a member of leadership. Don’t let your weaknesses dictate your organizational culture. A definite black hole.
  • Results, not behavior – Unless your people are throwing away money, breaking the law or acting unethically, then give them some latitude to deliver the results. Why on earth would you want an organization of clones just so you can monitor progress? Innovation, success and progress are all messy endeavors so stop trying to clean them up.

This is a good start to creating foundational systems and tearing down the restrictive ones. What would you add to this list?

 

6 Comments

  1. Great post. Systems are a great way to get and stay on track. However, not all systems perfect and like you said require re-visiting. With a little tweak here and there it is possible that systems will evolve along with the reasons they were initially created.

    Within the military we have what is called “Battle Drills”. These drills are designed to be implemented based off the situation/scenario they were intended for however we all know that even a “Battle Drill” is not perfect. This drill/system is not a living breathing thing that is live on the ground with what is going on but remains flexible enough in which smart decisions can be made to save lives or handle situations according to its general guidelines.

    My solution to fixing these drills/systems is to conduct random scenario/vignette training in which After Action Reviews are conducted to make these drills/systems better and relevent instead of stagnant and irrelevant. You can find my tips on how to conduct an After Action Review at Leadertank.com and click the Leadership Resources page.

  2. Well written post, William.

    Just reading a David Baldacci novel with a federal prison as context and the shiny fence analogy became ever more real for me.

    In reality the fence is imprisoning to the abilities and creativity of the people around us.

    The irony, is when we want to build people up and give them freedom to grow we rarely give them the foundations they need to build up from.

    Keep up the thoughtful dialogue.

    Roy

  3. I totally agree with this. I despair of systems that are really there to make up for management short comings. A better solution is to improve your managers rather than building systems which give the impression of making up the short fall. I think of this as having more jazz and a lot less orchestras.

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