Recently I read an article “The government is not above the rule of law” by Gurucharan Das in The Times of India. Mr. Das was CEO of Procter & Gamble India and later Managing Director, Procter & Gamble Worldwide (Strategic Planning). Now he is a full time writer.
A few sentences from the article attracted my attention. I realized that if a few terms are replaced as applicable in the context of an organization instead of the country, it provides an interesting perspective about the organizational policies. Here is how,
Original from the article: Citizens look to the state to reduce uncertainty in their lives. The state does this through a robust set of laws. The rule of law is based on a moral consensus, expressed daily in the ‘habits of the heart’. People obey the law not only because they fear the punishment but because they think it is fair and it becomes a habit and a form of self-restraint.
After replacement: Employees look to the management to reduce uncertainty in their lives. The management does this through a robust set of policies. These policies are based on a moral consensus, expressed daily in the ‘habits of the heart’. Employees adhere to the policies not only because they fear the punishment but because they think it is fair and it becomes a habit and a form of self-restraint.
See if it makes sense.
For business organizations, Synergy is an important concept as there is greater emphasis on human interactions and need for better & quicker decision-making on the frontline. To provide this agility, the teams need to organize and manage themselves rather than always waiting for control and direction from above. Synergy has a tremendous untapped potential to enrich human interactions. But whenever we talk of synergy, the most common definition I keep hearing is “The whole is more than its parts” or as an example “Two and two equals five or more”. Though it all sounds nice & magical, there are limited ways to put it in practice.
I feel that if we can understand synergy in logical terms, it would provide us many more opportunities which we don’t look at because of the way synergy is defined. We need to get out of the mystery and evolve rational ways of dealing with it. First step is look at possibility of redefining what synergy really is and where it comes from. After searching on Google for better definitions and giving it a lot of thought, here is a possibility I have come up with; please see if it makes sense.
(Sy)stem + E(nergy) = Synergy
Next, where does it come from or what is its source? Here again, though lot has been written about synergy along with many examples, I did not find any reference which clearly explained the mathematical inequality “2 + 2 = (>4)” or what is the source of this extra energy.
Again after much thought, a possibility suddenly struck me. What if we approach it from a diametrically opposite direction?
Any system by itself has abundant energy. However for the systems that participate in or interact with it, the energy available for their interaction gets limited by the restrictions they place themselves or others place on it. These restrictions could be for a variety of reasons and may be placed either intentionally or unintentionally.
This line of thought can help us to investigate the common types of restrictions we frequently encounter in the context of an organization where employees & teams participate in it while the customers & other external agencies interact with it.
Dimensions of awareness – An organization works on many dimensions but each individual or groups involved may not be even aware of all such dimensions. As they try to selectively expose themselves, it opens up possibilities of collaboration in existing as well as new areas.
Limited span of attention – Everybody is so busy that there is hardly any time to expand the span of attention even on the dimensions they are aware of. Taking time out even for a glimpse at other related areas helps a lot. Assumptions and beliefs – We are so blinded by our assumptions and emotionally attached to our beliefs that it restricts our interactions. Intentionally suspending them and see beyond really helps.
Being on the defensive – Everybody has a right to protect himself against threats to very existence. The problem arises when we get obsessed with self-preservation and are unduly on the defensive. The problem is accentuated when it is expected to give up self-interest in the cause of larger good. This cycle can be reversed by accepting the right to protect oneself which makes the person more open and confident.
Excessive homogeneity – Everybody has a unique combination of strengths & talents. It needs an opportunity to make full use of them. The problem arises when in the name of standardization these natural impulses are curbed or in some cases put down with a heavy hand. The cycle can be reversed by accepting this reality and providing right environment to nurture the talents and strengths.
Lack of freedom – Everybody needs adequate freedom to respond quickly and appropriately to myriad challenges he faces. The problem arises when in the name of keeping things predictable and under control, too many or unnecessary rules are enforced. The cycle can be reversed by accepting the need and minimizing the rules while helping to evolve appropriate strategies to deal with variety of situations quickly & correctly. This in turn would build respect for a few essential rules which still remain.
Resource bottlenecks – Resource bottlenecks is natural phenomenon and there are ways to deal with it. The problem is when everybody rushes to grab the scarce resource which creates artificial shortages which is a far more serious restriction. Impatience – Many of us are so impatient to take a decision and to act on it. If there are differences take a vote and move on. But for complex problems this speed is illusive because we land up in another problem. The solution is to really listen to diverse points of view with an open mind and keep improving the original solution till all concerned agree that collectively we have come to a much better solution.
Motivation by competition – There are two ways to motivate. One way is to choose & reward the best or number one, where those not found to be the best may lose heart. Other approach is to recognize and appreciate for their contributions and give their achievements higher visibility.
Inherent system limitations – Last but not the least, even the organizations are systems which participate or interact with larger ecosystems. Thus they are also subject to all the above restrictions which in turn become restrictions for internal and external individuals & groups dealing with it.
There is also mention in the literature of “Negative synergy”. It doesn’t make sense how synergy can ever be negative. It probably follows from the choice of a wrong benchmark. Currently the benchmark is kept at the energy available to us individually. When joining hands with others gives better results it is called (positive) synergy and we feel happy. Whereas when such collaboration leads to even less output than what we could have individually achieved it is called negative synergy and we feel bad about it.
Compare this with the possibility of choosing “System energy” as a benchmark where we want to ultimately reach. Our attention would then be focused on identifying & removing the restrictions in a given situation guided by types of restrictions cited above. This focus would help us to identify cases where the collaboration leads to increased restrictions like when two persons can’t just get together or two teams end up having fights whenever they have to work together. Understanding the real reason would help us to quickly take the corrective actions. In either case, both whether working together reduces or increases the restrictions on interactions, as we understand the reasons and take quick actions, we feel happy and this motivates us further to move towards the full potential of synergy.
To summarize, the term Synergy has traditionally been defined and used in a certain way, including in the latest book “The 3rd Alternative” by the bestselling author Stephen R. Covey. This approach seems mysterious & illusive to me. Through this blog, I am exploring another possibility where we define it differently, set the benchmark accordingly and deal with it realistically. It could open up new possibilities of tapping the abundant energy present in all human systems which is potentially available to other systems participating in or interacting with it, provided they can work on removing the restrictions placed on their interactions. The main benefit of this approach would be that we can take charge of our actions and adopt an attitude of “we can and we will”. This rational approach to identify & remove the restrictions on our freedom will release the tremendous synergy available in the systems we deal with. Give it a thought and share your views.
I recall an interesting incident which happened a few weeks back which I think I must share with you. I was driving from my home to office. When I reached and turned on the main Agra Bombay Road, as usual traffic from all directions was converging near the lifeline hospital and everybody was trying to get ahead of each other. It is a common occurrence and as usual no traffic cop was in sight to resolve it.
What was uncommon that day was a person going on a bicycle stopped and parked it on the side. He then came near the point of traffic jam and started directing it to make the vehicles move out wherever he found some space. This had an almost electric effect on others and everybody was cooperating with him. Within minutes the bottleneck had disappeared and traffic was moving smoothly. The bicycle person quietly picked it up and was on his way.
It was both an enlightening as well as a humbling experience. We come across many such cases where all of us are looking to our narrow interests and unmindful of the effect on the overall system, may it be the family, organization or even the economy. We need somebody to disentangle the mess we create for ourselves. Can we be the disentangler next time around?
Your views and inputs are valuable; please share.
In the context of human organizations, especially technical organizations, we hear a lot about processes and their importance. In other social organizations a similar concept is used but with terms like conventions & traditions. By whatever name, it essentially means what the teams (in a generic sense as a group of individuals with a common mission) favor and expect its members to follow. These may be decided by the teams themselves or prescribed for them from outside. Defining and following certain preferred ways of working by the team greatly improves its efficiency and reliability. Taken too far, especially when the situations for which they were suitable no longer exist, it starts to exhibit the harmful aspects.
Practice is a younger sibling of process, which is what individual team members do to accomplish their tasks or take decisions. Though practices are equally, if not more, important than processes due to their impact on the outcome; they rarely get the attention they deserve. This probably happens because practices are considered part of the processes and given the same treatment, whereas they need a very different approach. Processes can be, and where possible should be, automated to ensure repeatability. Practice on the other hand is a human activity and to be effective needs to be quickly adjusted to the demands of the situation. Practices should allow and support discretion whereas processes can go haywire with too much freedom to change them as and when one feels.
We see plenty of examples of the above in real life, whether in the technical teams (those producing goods & services) or social teams like the family or the community. Quite often a team restricts in the name of discipline, an individual’s choice to act based on his judgment; sometimes with disastrous results. There are also enough examples of liaise faire attitude by the team members which mess up the smooth functioning of the team, affecting its performance and sometimes even threatening its very existence. This is unnecessary. All we need is a more balanced approach where neither the process nor the practice tries to dominate the other bur rather co-exists focusing on its own scope, while at the same time helping and supporting the other. Though this is quite simple, it is easier said than done; Old habits (and perceptions) die hard.
There is a fascinating book “How NASA builds teams” by Charles Pellerin, who worked as the director of astrophysics at NASA. Based on his close association with the failed Hubble telescope mission and the subsequent successful repair in space, he developed a system to improve communications, performance and morale among hundreds of NASA teams. He says from his experience that 80 to 95 % of the failures by technical teams are due to neglecting the social context. He suggests that rather than trying to influence the individual human behavior, it helps if the teams manage the social context in which individual members operate. He gives plenty of examples which highlight need for the teams to effectively manage the environment or context in which the team members operate rather than monitor & control their behavior.
To summarize, a small change in attitude to let processes & practices co-exist, with mutual respect, can have a profound impact on human teams. But it is a huge task to put it in practice and let it become the culture of the organization.
Last week I was referred to an article on “5 lessons entrepreneurs can learn from Navy SEALs”. There were comments; both supportive and critical. However, few things stood out which everybody seemed to agree on. These were – intensive and continuous training; not to go by what people just talk but see it in actual practice; and importance of preparing people for different situations.
Though the term training was used throughout, some aspects really belong to coaching. We tend to use the three related terms – training, coaching & mentoring – often interchangeably so I was interested to understand difference between them. Looking up on the net made me more confused than before, so decided to put down the gist of what I read, in terms which made sense to me. These are tentative and open to improvement and your inputs are most welcome. However, I will try to see if it gives us greater clarity in terms of how to apply the learning from Navy SEALS to the organizational context. Here go my definitions,
Training: Explain concepts and make sure they are understood. Explain practices and make sure the participants can execute them.
Coaching: Make the team members repeat good practices till they become second nature. Prepare them to face different situations by practicing variations.
Mentoring: Integrate practices in a cohesive whole to meet the needs of individuals and teams. Get the team members to support each other in reviewing and updating practices.
Going by these interpretations of the three terms, we can say that both training & coaching relate to specific areas whereas mentoring is holistic. Training when supplemented by coaching makes it more durable & long lasting. Each of the three requires different skill sets and mentoring requires a broader combination of skills which is rarer to find than the skills required for training / coaching.
In the context of business organizations, there would be some differences than the approach advocated in the referred article. For example,
The article says that “The SEALs are trained in a nearly identical manner and no one SEAL is indispensable to the unit or the mission. The nature of combat is that anyone can be lost at any time”. The nature of their operations makes the loss quite sudden; in organizations there would be more time to make alternate arrangements. Secondly, quick execution almost without thinking needs identical training whereas in organizations there is greater scope to adjust it to the personality and unique needs of the group of individuals. There was another reference I came across last week which was a review of the book “How NASA builds teams” by Charles J Pellerin. The author has built a “new system of team building which revolves around helping people identify their personality types and taking that into account for better communication”. This seems quite useful in case of organizations.
The article also talks of the “price of settling for mediocrity”. While it is desirable to get rid of mediocrity from organizations as much as possible, it is even more important to be clear about what exactly is being mediocre. In my view, it is more related to the person’s attitude. Many a times we tend to relate to a mediocre performance which could be result of a misfit between the requirements of a role and the talents / skill set of the person. By bringing about better alignment, the performance can go up from mediocre to extraordinary. However, mediocre attitude would always lead to mediocre performance.
Your views and inputs are very valuable; please share them with me.
Backbiting means to speak badly about another person without that person’s knowledge. According to some, backbiting normally occurs as a form of release after a confrontation. By insulting the opposing person, the backbiter diminishes them and, by doing so, restores their own self-esteem. Such gossip is common in human society as people seek to divert blame and establish their place in the power structure.
Another reason for backbiting is to get into the inner circle of powerful people because many of them encourage it to establish an intelligence network within the organization. I have come across many such cases where persons in high places cultivate and reward their juniors who are open to it. But it is a short-sighted strategy. Others who are whispered about behind their backs sense it and try to avoid any interaction with the backbiters. They also lose respect for the persons who encourage it.
If it continues unchecked, the greatest sufferer is the organization. The atmosphere is vitiated and gives rise to negative vibes; trust amongst peers and across various levels is seriously hampered. The solution is simple but requires discipline, sustained efforts and perseverance. It is impractical to assume that the persons who benefit by backbiting would want to do anything to discourage it. But those who understand the ill effects of this phenomenon need to start asking just two questions to anybody who backbites to them about another; “How does it affect you?” and “Have you talked to the person concerned?” The first question separates gossip from genuine grievance and the second gives a clear message that speaking about another in either case without his knowledge is not acceptable.
As more and more instances of such questioning happen in an organization, it starts building a structure which progressively reduces the freedom and immunity with which the participants of backbiting can operate, because all are interconnected one way or the other. Slowly but surely it becomes part of the organizational culture. Once that happens, it has a powerful effect not only on the existing employees but even on the new ones who join the organization.
I would really appreciate any thoughts / experiences from you that either support or challenge what is said above.
We are used to processes. We don’t think of practices as much, though they are far more important in the context of the organizational excellence. There are major differences between the two. Practices are what we do; processes define for us what we should do. Unlike processes which are expected to be documented, practices may be documented if it is useful to do so but it is not a must; they can be formal or informal. Practices are omnipresent in all walks of our lives, including our professional work. The difference between the processes & practices can be easily seen from the terms we associate with them. For example, we are all familiar with process compliance however you can’t aim for practice compliance because they are too diverse and difficult to mandate.
As individuals & teams, we are constantly choosing between available options and observing whether it helped. When in a given set of conditions a certain option works, we tend to prefer that option over others in future. After a few such repetitions, it forms into a practice and gets absorbed into our way of working. After some time, with frequent use it becomes almost an automatic & instantaneous reaction without thinking or even being aware of it.
This is both a benefit as well as a problem. It helps us to go about our daily lives far more effortlessly and with speed. It provides a momentum to our work. The problem starts when the condition under which a practice was useful changes. There is a saying that old habits die hard. We continue to believe that our set way of working is the best because it has worked so well in the past; little realizing that time has come to relook at it. What is true for the individuals is equally true for the teams & groups. However, here an additional factor of peer pressure comes into play which creates the resistance. Rather than being momentum any more, it becomes inertia. Moreover, few people in a team / group start realizing the need for change while others are happy to maintain the status quo. This leads to conflicts within the group and the effect depends on the power structures. As more and more members feel that change is necessary and it reaches a critical mass, change comes about, either peacefully or violently.
The preferred way of working not only remains in the collective consciousness of the group, it seeps into the culture of the organization and is passed from generation to generation of employees. Thus the way of working persists even after almost all the members are new. This has a hidden yet a very powerful effect.
Given the importance of practices in achieving organizational excellence, it is very important to understand the whole mechanics of their formation, absorption and change; in short how to achieve practice excellence. Over next few weeks, I would like to explore it further. If I come across something interesting and useful, I will share it with you. If you have any thoughts ideas or information on this area, please share them with me.
Last month, we explored importance of appreciation in the context of organizational excellence. Criticism is the other side of the coin, which I would like to explore today.
It is human nature to want appreciation and feel good when we receive it from others. It is also human nature to feel bad when somebody criticizes us and as a result we are reluctant to criticize others. But is that in our and others’ best interest? Criticism provides a very powerful feedback mechanism to let us know what we are missing. Only when we become aware of it can we do something to fill what is missing. By feeling bad about it and getting on the defensive, we miss a great opportunity to become a more complete person.
When making this change, it is always safer to start with taking criticism from others rather than start criticizing others. When we look at criticism as an opportunity to grow rather than something to be avoided, it completely changes our response to it. I have been trying to do the same and it really helps. The negative resistance gets replaced by a positive enthusiasm.
What is true for individuals is also true for teams, departments and the organizations. When service departments are criticized by the employees, we see resistance and defensive behavior. When teams are appreciated by the clients they feel happy and want to share it as an achievement with others. However, when we are criticized by the same clients, we are start finding excuses. The organizations seek regular satisfaction feedback from their customers and there is pressure to keep improving the index. But only a few really go out of the way to encourage an honest feedback and use it constructively for further improvements. We often hear the phrase “constructive criticism”, but I feel there is nothing like constructive or destructive from the giver’s point of view; it is how the receiver takes it. All we need is an honest feedback and it is for us to take it constructively or destructively.
Apart from the human feedback we receive, various systems we interact with keep giving us valuable feedback in terms of what did not go well. If only we take it as a honest criticism and use it constructively. All of us including me have a big gap between how we currently take criticism and how we could handle it differently as suggested above. It may make a huge difference to our performance and happiness if we practice this.
Would it therefore make sense to say that it is important for an organization to cultivate a culture of “honest feedback taken constructively”? I would appreciate any thoughts / experiences from you that either support or challenge what is said above.
Last week I read an interesting news item in the local Indore paper. The traffic police stopped those who were following the recently introduced traffic rules like use of seat belts by car drivers and of helmet by the two wheelers. This was in direct contrast to the normal practice of going after the offenders and ignoring those who were disciplined. The first reaction from the later kind of people was of concern and worry. But they were pleasantly surprised, when they received a certification of appreciation, a red rose and a cold drink to quench their thirst.
In the past, the traffic police had tried their best to enforce the rules through issuance of challans but with little success. It was always a case of “hide & seek” as a result the rules never successfully implemented and the disciplined people lose their faith in the system. This novel idea brought smile to the face of the active supporters of the system and envy for others. Hopefully, both would be motivated in future to follow the rules rather than trying to find ways to sabotage.
Does it mean that the punitive measures should be completely eliminated? No. They have their place but only for the habitual, shameless and hardened minority. For the majority of the public, they would go either way easily. All it takes is slight change of approach and taking benefit of natural need for appreciation felt by all humans.
There is an interesting concept called “structured freedom” which says that best way to ensure responsible freedom is to provide just the right kind of structures. They should be pleasant & unobtrusive for those who work in the interest of the system and harsh on those who are either guided by their narrow interests or take cynical pleasure in subverting the system. This concept can act as a guide while formulating policies and procedures in an organization.
Appreciation is a strong motivator and when judiciously used with harsh measures for intentional abuse can be effectively used to channel the energy of the majority towards org interest. The appreciation does not have to be in the form of rewards in kind. A genuine & specific appreciation given as soon as the positive action is noticed goes a long way in reinforcing such actions. If done publicly, others are motivated to do the same. This creates a self-sustaining system. Since the occasional offenders are ignored, the bottlenecks & impediments created by them in resistance are avoided. Positive energy is encouraged which directly helps the organizational excellence.
I would appreciate any thoughts / experiences from you that either support or challenge what is said above.
Recently I was particularly exasperated by a colleague who would promise a lot but actually won’t care to keep his promises. On top of it, he would be quite shameless about it and laugh it off. I have a friend who often would not do what he said he would do and then profusely apologize for it. In either case, it leaves me irritated & frustrated, but I do not want to let our relations be affected by of it. So as a safety measure, I started closely monitoring and reminding them but with partial success and lot of unnecessary work for me.
While thinking about it, I recalled the book “The Three Laws of Performance” by Steve Zaffron & Dave Logan which I was reading recently had mentioned about integrity and its importance. I looked up relevant portions again and feel it worthwhile sharing it here.
As per the authors, “An enduring sense of satisfaction requires living with integrity – speaking consistently in all situations, keeping our word when possible, saying when we won’t be able to keep it and then dealing with the consequences – makes us whole, complete and powerful”
Though this is so important, why don’t we strive for integrity in practice? The book provides a possible reason, “We seek to be liked, or win approval, or avoid situations that occur to us as dominating, and so we speak in a way that will bring us acceptance or recognition or safety in that moment. In another moment, with another group, we speak differently and create a lack of consistency and ultimately of power. We don’t speak honestly, we hold back; we give our word and don’t keep it. The result is lack of integrity and loss power”; How true.
Further, “On the positive side, honoring our word is also creating whole and complete social and working relationships, and it provides an actionable pathway to earning the trust of others. It allows who we are to come forward and to become a presence in the world”.
I started thinking what I could do to deal with such people, without frustration or irritation, and try to bring greater certainty in their actions where I depend on them. I can think of two possible approaches and I want to try them out. One is to be very explicit with them in terms of my expectations and not fall myself in the trap of trying to get their acceptance / recognition or avoid getting into awkwardness in our relationships. Another is to look for people around us who display a higher level of integrity and take their help in creating peer pressure on those who don’t. I hope it works.
I would really appreciate any thoughts / experiences you may have about how you handle it.