The Power of Visible Organisations
Imagine watching a sporting match , say a game of cricket, where there are no announcements, or commentary or display boards giving any information.
If all one sees is a lot of activity with players running all over the playing ground with someone bowling and some chaps batting, obviously it will be difficult to fathom what is happening.
If one has not even an inkling as to who is winning or losing and what are the runs or run rate required to win the match or wickets remaining etc, the game will in all likely hood not sustain the interest of the spectator. Not only spectators but players too will soon get bored, and likely to lose interest in the game /match and of course the result. Unfortunately this is the same situation in many organisations.
Many employees within organisations haven’t a clue on what is happening. Yet they are screamed at, lectured, and sent to motivational and training camps to get them to be enthusiastic about an organisation for which they have little interest other than the immediate gain they can draw.
Employees are paid, so they show up for work and unlike the cricket game it is difficult for them to leave, because the organisation provides a lively-hood. Many managements and Human Resources managers have not yet realised that with the hired hand comes the complete woman or man
One of the causes of high attrition rates is that employees are totally disconnected from their organisation in mind and spirit. In these so called "invisible organisations", people working for the organisation have no idea what their organisations long term or even immediate plans are.
Employees and team members have little or no idea as to how their individual contribution helps them or their organisation to meet its goals. Felling adrift , they remain clueless as to what is going to happen to their own careers and their personal future. They often jump ship to board another one and find the situation.
All employees are thinking of are, is how to get through the day, get paid and get away from their work environment to do something more interesting and meaningful to them.
In an essence they are at work physically, but the organisation is almost invisible to the individual beyond the physical things like buildings, offices, equipment, material and computers etc. They see lots of people and an immediate boss who is normally domineering and more likely than not as clueless as the employee.
All organisations that grow from a small to larger organisations go through this phase. When they become invisible to their team the organisation faces major challenges. We too suffered from this illness at one time..
The rapid growth and at several locations had allowed several smart and competent leaders to emerge within our managerial ranks. These leaders or department heads replicated the same management model we had adopted and pushed ahead on sheer force of drive. However it set up rivalry and unwanted tensions within our managerial ranks, which threatened to tear our organisation apart.
We felt we had to 'professionalise'. Professionalism is an often misunderstood and abused term. We were so desperate to "professionalise" that we gave more unbridled freedom to our managers. Unfortunately the situation only worsened.
We were perplexed that our previously high performing people had grown listless and disinterested in their work and performance was slipping. We blamed people and removed or transferred people around, we also brought in much more senior managers with greater experience paying a lot of money. However like a super tanker at sea, the response if any was too slow and extremely frustrating.
We observed the following symptoms of an illness we could not understand;
- The bosses of the various departments had become extremely territorial. They demanded that all employees in that department should pledge blind allegiance to their boss and the department.
- The entire organisation had broken into small cliques and groups warring with each other and most of the conflicts were trivial and based on behavioural issues rather than performance issues
- The high growth had caused a disconnect from our team and ourselves.
- The overall organisation just kept moving along on its previous trajectory but gradually losing momentum and efficiency.
The problem was not our team or our people , the problem was us, we the top management who were also the owners.
In hindsight, what we perceived as delegation or professionalism was actually abdication of our responsibilities and that too in a chaotic environment. This can be a recipe for disaster.
We used every tool in our managerial and leadership tool box to try and fix the problems. We even threw loads of money at the problem and that helped for a while like a shot of steroids.
There is no one solution for problems. At the end of the day, organisations thrive or fail is dependant mainly on the people within the organisation. This may seem a little too obvious.
However what is obvious to the leaders is often not clear to the employees and the team. Leaders often assume that people know what they have to do and where the organisation is heading "after all it’s so obvious." But this is a blunder that managements often make.
To illustrate, please recall that as children most of us have played a game called 'Chinese whisper'. In this game people sit in a circle and the first person says something in the ear of the person next to them, and then it goes around to the next person in the circle until the last person says out loud the message he or she received. Not surprisingly the final message spoken aloud has completely different words and meaning from the original.
As engineers should know best, every component in a network doubles the noise and halves the signal strength.
We finally veered down to the conclusion is that we had grown and it was difficult to simply motivate people by your personal charm and hard work. We had to reconnect with our people by becoming a visible organisation.
There was much resistance from many quarters within management, but we adopted the policy that ’people work for us and not against us’.
We debated at great length our plans and spelt them out, put in appropriate management structures and reached out to each individual within our team. Not only by using the hierarchy but direct contact as well.
A news letter was started, plans and performance were displayed widely and with few words but lots of colourful images and graphs. Almost everyone knew the game, and the score.
The areas of concern, the areas generating joy and successes , what was needed to be done, who was doing it all became known to most people.
Initially the employees were amused and minimally interested, but as they watched the progress of the game they got involved and then the organisation took off rising high and with great strength.
It also became obvious who were performers and non performers. No one wanted to look bad so peer pressure kicked in to motivate people to perform better.
A later innovation was notice boards where people could write and display their suggestions company wide even anonymously gave further impetus.
As the visibility grew everyone rallied around performance rather than groups or departments. Not only was current performance indicated, but benchmarks were easy to set by indicating trends of performance. This continuous improvement became a mantra. Coupled with a good feedback system and possibility for dialogue between employees and between ranks right from top to the bottom we became a juggernaut.
Sadly in my visits to organisations I often see many types of visible organisations but they are prepared more for outsiders and show rather than as a communication and bonding tool for employees and the entire organisational team. Organisations blindly copying fads and ideas without adopting them into their organisation’s character or DNA fail to take advantage of many management innovations.
The gains that were achieved were almost swept away by a section we had never imagined ‘ a threatened middle management’. However, that dear readers, will have to be another blog posting.