Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why goal setting feels abusive and what to do instead

Meaning, Intention and Commitment at Work

A different path to getting what you want

by Darcy Hitchcock, Originially published in 2001 by AXIS Performance Advisors

In the US, one of the most common questions we ask when we meet someone is, "What do you do?" In other words, what do you do for WORK? We spend so much time at work and derive so much personal identity from what we do that it is important to infuse our work with meaning.

This is especially important in today's high-employment workplace if you want to attract good people. And our shift from an industrial economy to one based on knowledge work only underlines this need even more, for we must rely on employees' mental energy, their commitment to the mission and task, to be successful.

All this said, we do not have particularly effective organizational practices to get at this more spiritual dimension of work. Sure, we do visioning, write mission statements, and set goals but these don't come close to embracing the experience of discovering meaning, setting intentions or developing commitment.

In this post we will explore how practices from other venues might be applied at work.

"Leadership is a personal quest you undertake, one based on a mission that troubles your heart."
-- Harriet Rubin, senior writer for FastCompany Magazine

Courtesy Stuart Miles,
I started thinking about this when I was working with an organization that offered self-help, self-study courses. One of the psychologists who was writing the training said, "The only way I know to get people to make improvements is to set a goal, make a plan and build in rewards along the way." I responded that her approach would work well for many but would not work for parts of the population. I told her setting goals was a predominately Western concept. She looked at me like I was from Mars. It got me thinking about how much we take goal setting for granted in organizations as The Way to get what we want.

So Marsha and I hosted a think tank on the subject of setting intentions, inviting an ordained minister, a practicing Buddhist, a cancer survivor, and other interesting characters. This newsletter doesn't summarize the results of the think tank as much as it expresses my current musings on the topic as a result of what I learned there. I'm grateful to all those who participated in the think tank for expanding my point of view. 

 Goal Setting
Intention setting
Deals with goals, measures, plans, rewards Deals with personal passions, wishes, reflection, and discovery
Works best when: you know what the end state looks like and you have control over key variables; situations of low uncertainty, stable environments; when top-down directives can get you what you need Works best when you may not know what the end-state should look like and/or you don't have a lot of control; dynamic/chaotic situations; when you need to tap into personal passions/ commitment to get what you need.
Assumes you can make things happen Assumes you can let things happen

Goal setting: One path to getting what you want

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to clump a bunch of practices under the heading of goal setting: strategic planning, visioning, writing mission statements, setting goals, writing action plans. If you get down to the root, all these practices attempt to influence the future; they help you get what you want. The basic idea is figure out what you want, make a plan, work the plan, and if you're really advanced, plan ways to reward yourself along the way.

It's a behaviorist's approach to management.So what's wrong with goal setting?Don't get me wrong; I'm not against goal setting as an organizational or personal practice. It is often useful to set a measurable goal, develop a set of actions that will lead you there, and reward your progress. This practice works especially well when two conditions are true:
  • You know what the end-state should look like and 
  • You have control over most of the critical factors for success. 

Losing weight, running a marathon, planning a merger or releasing a new product all are examples when goal setting can be helpful: set the goal, make a plan, work the plan.

However, there are many situations when the above two criteria are not met. In today's turbulent business climate, how can you know where you should be in five or ten years? And even if you set a plan, there are numerous factors outside your control that can throw you off: new technologies, an economic downturn, a vigorous competitor, new regulations, etc.

Who was it that said, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"? When all we have is goal setting, then we tend to use this same process whenever we want to influence the future. But this can be counterproductive.

I've often noticed that some people shut down when you ask them to set measurable goals. Suddenly, they're afraid. "Am I going to be evaluated on this? Is this part of my performance appraisal? What happens if I can't meet my goal?" Creativity, innovative thinking, and risk taking quickly devolve into safe, I-already-accomplished-it-anyway goals. And if you persist, it can feel abusive.

Can you really expect your sales reps to set sales targets for the next two years when many of the success factors (the economy, the advertising budget, new product releases) are out of their control?

The common alternative, setting process goals (e.g., number of sales calls per week) can result in people doing what you're measuring them on, even if that's no longer what's best for the company. Used in the wrong situation, goal setting has a constipated feel to it: straining, forcing, teeth-gritting. It's about making things happen instead of letting things happen. It can grind out the joy, the discovery, the openness to new opportunities. It may seem obvious, but goal setting doesn't always work. We put so much faith into it, that this fact is often denied. The next set of practices I will share with you also are not fail-safe. But I believe there are situations where they are more likely to get you what you want than goal setting will.

Intention setting: Another way to get what you want

Instead of making things happen, you can sometimes let things happen. This may seem "over the top" for many of you, but there are many who believe and research to support that setting an intention does, in fact, seem to work. Manifesting what you want as a thought can run the gamut from expressing a whim, making a wish or saying a sacred prayer. Unlike goal setting, you don't create a lengthy action plan; instead, you let it go and wait to see what comes back."The most powerful tool in the arsenal of a person who truly wants to make a significant difference in the world is intent. The power of intention and commitment cannot be overestimated. The intention we speak of here is not what many learned early on in their careers -- the commitment to 'make it happen' -- in effect seizing fate by the throat and doing whatever it takes to succeed.

This commitment is another, deeper aspect of intention -- it begins with the way we think about the world, about life itself, and the role we play in life's unfolding. In this way of being, first we see the world as fundamentally open, dynamic, interconnected and full of possibilities -- possibilities that stand in need of us."-- Claus Otto Scharmer, Society for Organizational Learning, MIT Sloan School of Management

Perhaps a personal story will make the point. About 20 years ago, I was moving into a new house, one I was purchasing with my husband-to-be. As I was unpacking boxes, putting books into the bookcase, a piece of paper fell from one of the books onto the floor. It was an intention setting exercise I had completed several years before which I had long since forgotten. It described our new house in eerie detail: 2500 square feet, chalet style, in the trees, on five acres. The only part of the description that wasn't accurate was the town I had listed (and for those of you who know my mud slide story, I now wish I had purchased a house someplace else!)Many of you probably have similar stories. That's why we have phrases like, "Watch out what you wish for," because wishes often seem to come true. And according to Paul Pearsall of Wishing Well, there are numerous scientific studies showing that wishing, intention and prayer can, in fact, affect outcomes. One of the more famous studies involved people praying for patients in another state. The prayed-for patients as a group recovered faster than the control group, even though they didn't know they were the focus of prayers. Spooky, huh?

There are many possible explanations how this works. Having a clear mental picture of what you want undoubtedly makes you more observant of opportunities. Scientists involved with quantum physics and chaos theory have discovered that, at least on the quantum level, intention and observation can affect experimental results, so perhaps our thoughts do manifest themselves. One person I know brags about her ability to conjure up parking spaces, calling it "popping a quiff" ("Quiff" is how they pronounce qwf for quantum wave function.) And of course, there are spiritual explanations as well.

"When you broadcast such an intention, there is very little else you have to do. The broadcast of intention goes out and makes it happen."--Srikumar Rao, professor of business creativity at Columbia and Long Island University

Deepak Chopra is probably the most recognizable proponent of this intention setting approach. In his book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, he explains that we don't have to work so hard to get what we want. He encourages people to be reflective (why do I want this?), to consider the consequences (will this bring fulfillment to myself and others?), make a list of desires and review them every day, and accept uncertainty as an essential ingredient, remaining open to the "infinity of choices."

According to research documented in Wishing Well, "well-wishers" experience the following benefits:improved immune response reduced stress being more forgiving better able to deal with challenges more connected and loving towards others Even if this is hogwash or just the equivalent of the placebo effect, might it be worth it to practice wishing or intention setting anyway?

Marsha and I have been experimenting with corporate intention setting, what we refer to (a little tongue-in-cheek) as "strategic planning by wishing." And our track record for getting our big wishes for each year is much better than for all the goals we've set (specific revenue targets, for example). We've come to trust in the process.Intention setting seems to fit well when goal setting doesn't. Earlier I said that goal setting works well when you know what the end-state should look like. Intention setting can help you discover an end-state. (For example, last year, Marsha and I wished to become clear about what role we could play in the sustainability movement....a wish that came true.) I also said that goal setting works well when you have a lot of control over key variables.

Again, intention setting brings with it a philosophy to let events unfold. It embraces the mystery of serendipity and invites you to explore the potential meaning of situations as they present themselves. Whether you believe in a spiritual force or not, this practice of reflection helps you see relationships that you might ignore if you were narrowly focused on your goal.

According to Wishing Well, collective wishes have stronger power than individual wishes. What would it be like to make a collective wish with everyone in your organization? Imagine the process of discovering your shared wish, of voicing it together, and then periodically reflecting on the bounty that wish evoked. What an interesting ceremony that would be!

In Wishing Well, Pearsall presents a five step cycle which I have laid out in linear form so you can compare it to our typical approach in business on the right:

 Wishing involves...
Goal setting involves...
Purpose Mission statement
Meaning Goals
Compassion Tasks
Serenity Accountability
Delight Rewards

The two lists have a completely different feel to them. Both start with what you want and end with the natural consequences of achieving that. But the experience of living through these two lists is entirely different. How would you like to live in an organization that did more of the list on the left? How do you set an intention? So what do I DO? What would a replicable business process for intention setting look like? In the following process, I am blending practices from intention setting (which we have discussed at length) and visualization (which is used a lot by Olympic athletes and cancer patients).1.

How to Set Intentions

1. Uncover your passion(s) 

This involves both knowledge about yourself (who am I? what am I passionate about?) and the world (what needs are there that I can fulfill?) In The Cathedral Within, Bill Shore, the founder of Sharing our Strength, says the main event that propels people to act on their passions is discovering that they have something unique in themselves that can contribute to a solution. So you cannot discover this in isolation, on a mountain top.

Discovering your purpose(s) in life comes from the interaction between who you are and what is going on in the world. Most people are aware of themes or threads that connect most of their life, making them who they are: a love of nature, a passion for figuring out how things work, a love of teaching, a passion for music. Quiet your mind and discover who is behind the chatter.

In Callings, Gregg Levoy counsels us to not look for one calling but many. Ask, "In how many ways can I..."

"Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware."
-- Martin Buber

2. Discover your intention 

Next you have to figure out what you want to have happen. This may seem like an easy step but it is often not. Examine your motivation. Why do you want this? Be aware of the deeper need behind your intention. Sometimes this process takes minutes, sometimes a lifetime."You become extremely clear about what it is you want to do. Why is it you want to do what you do? How is it a reflection of your values? How does it relate to your unique purpose in life? What is it that you want to accomplish in society? Think about all the inherent contradictions that are there and then, if possible, reconcile them."--Srikumar Rao, professor of business creativity at Columbia and Long Island University3. Visualize it manifest -- If your intention has a clear end-state, it can help to visualize it in some detail. What will it look like, smell like, feel like? What will you be wearing when you do this work? What will your customers or clients do? Where will your intention show up in tangible form in letters or policies or purchasing decisions?

"I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It's like a color movie."
Jack Nicklaus, professional golfer

4. Create an icon 

Create some visible, tangible artifact that symbolizes your vision. It might be a collage, an object, a phrase. Place this where you can contemplate it daily. (One governmental agency in New Mexico summarized their strategic plan into a picture and printed it on mousepads for every employee.)

5. Put your intention "out there" 

It seems to help if you take tangible actions, do something to stir the universe. Many consultants talk about "serendipitous marketing." If you just sit in your office, no new business comes your way. But if you get out and talk to people, work will come your way (but usually from somewhere else, unrelated to your conversations.) So talk to people about your intention, take some action toward it. You don't need a detailed action plan but invest some energy into your intention. Make a verbal commitment. Say, "I am ready and am willing to take whatever is next."

6. Reflect on what happens 

Finally, be observant of what comes next and how you feel about what happens. View obstacles as part of your journey. Stay firm in your intention but flexible in your means.

"Yet, in this state of intention we must have the integrity, as Francisco Varela puts it, to stand in a 'state of surrender,' knowing that whatever we need at the moment to meet our destiny, will be available to us. It is at this point that we alter our relationship to the future. When we operate with this kind of intention and in this state of open commitment, we see ourselves as an essential part of the unfolding of the universe, of life itself and we seek to bring an unborn possibility into reality as 'it desires,' to serve humankind, not to serve our own narrow selfish desires."
-- Claus Otto Scharmer, MIT Sloan School of Management


Leadership in the New Economy: Sensing and actualizing emerging futures by Claus Otto Scharmer. Excellent intellectual thinking, dovetailing intention setting with a business context. <>

Callings: Finding and following an authentic life by Gregg Levoy. Great book on how to discover your callings (plural) along with the upside and downside.

Wishing Well: Making your every wish come true by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. Parts of the book are annoyingly redundant but it provides an interesting review of the research and helpful rules to guide your wishing.

The Mental Edge: Maximize your sports potential with the mind-body connection, by Kenneth Baum. While the book is written with athletes in mind, the lessons about how to use relaxation and mental rehearsals to improve performance are easily adapted to other areas of our life.

Tibetan Wisdom for Western Life, by Joseph Arpaia, MD and Lobsang Rapgay, Ph.D. Since attention is an important part of intention, this book provides clear instructions for how to improve your ability to concentrate and meditate.

The Passion Plan: A step by step guide to discovering, developing and living your passion by Richard Chang. Easy to follow instructions and activities for individuals that would work as well with groups.

Visioning: Ten Steps to Designing the Life of Your Dreams by Lucia Capacchione, Ph.D., ATR. If you want some ideas about how to get out of your head to discover what's in your heart, this book has some nice exercises, including making a collage, writing with your non-dominant hand, etc. Many can be done as groups.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Book Review: Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

Macy, Joanna and Chris Johnstone (2012) Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. New World Library: Novato, CA.
[Click here to see more about Active Hope]

This is an antidote to the despair many of us in the sustainability profession feel about the state of the world. The authors provide concepts and tools for us to find satisfaction in our efforts beside the challenges. It includes stories and also exercises and in this way is similar to doing one of Joanna’s workshops, although doing it alone will not be as powerful.

The problems we face are so daunting that many people turn away or get burned out. But the authors maintain that hope has two meanings. The first is related to hopefulness, that you think the outcomes you want will come to pass. This form of hope in the face of climate change and species extinction can lead to despair. But hope is also about desire, what you’d like to have happen in the world. “Active hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have.”

The steps of active hope are:
  1. Take a clear view of reality
  2. Identify what you hope for (direction and values) 
  3. Take steps to move the situation and ourselves in that direction “Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless.” (p3) 

We are encouraged to see our striving as similar to the many hero’s journey stories (Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.) where an apparently ill-prepared protagonist embarks on a journey where there is no guarantee of success. They face many obstacles on their path, engage others in the quest, summon unknown inner resources, and develop along the way. The authors also encourage us to see ourselves and our efforts in a larger context.

We may only be doing a little piece but we are part of the Great Turning. I loved how rainforest activist John Seed described his efforts: “I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rainforest. Rather, I am part of the rainforest protecting itself. I am the part of the rainforest recently emerged into human thinking.” (p 94)

The book lays out three different types of actions needed: holding actions (to preserve what we have); life sustaining systems and practices; and shift in consciousness. You may be more drawn to one type of action or another or you might evolve from one to another. In any case, this book and the concepts in it are useful tools to take on your hero’s journey.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What Can Anthropology Teach Managers?

What Evolutionary Psychology Can Teach Us about Managing People

by Darcy Hitchcock. Originally published in 1999 by AXIS Performance Advisors

In Biomimicry and Business, we explored how to apply nature's strategies in the design of organizations. But in addition to designing organizations so that they accommodate the limitations of nature, we should also operate our organizations so that they accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.

Masai art, courtesy africa,
What would it be like to make working as natural as walking, to create a workplace where people can be themselves and gain fulfillment by contributing their best gifts? In this issue, we'll explore how insights from evolutionary psychology can help us manage people.

In many ways, how we work in today's economy is unnatural. We are expected to work an eight-, ten- or twelve-hour shift, even though our energy levels wax and wane during the day. Some people even work graveyard when, according to the National Sleep Foundation, our bodies never adapt. In spite of having physiques designed for hunting and gathering, many sit in a cubicle all day often devoid of natural light, forced to do repetitive, small motion tasks. Work is isolated from the res t of our lives and our communities,separating people from family members for most of the day.

While our world has changed dramatically in the last few thousand years,our genetics have barely budged. So how would we work differently if we wanted to align our organizational practices with human nature? So let's go back to what humans evolved to do and see if we can adapt the workplace to those characteristics. (See the sidebar, The Nature of Humans.) In this article, I can only touch on some of the implications. Please share your insights as well.

The Nature of Humans

Evolutionary psychology informs us about human nature. According to Nigel Nicholson in the Harvard Business Review article, "How Hardwired Is Human Behavior?" (July-August 1998), it seems humans have, through their evolutionary experiences, evolved to:
  • Use emotions as the first screen for all information. (Remember the last time you got negative feedback on your performance appraisal.) So why do we expect organizations to act rationally?
  • Avoid risky situations when feeling secure but fight ferociously when threatened. (Think about how differently people act when the organization is doing fine financially versus when it is faced with layoffs.) So how do we get people to modify their behavior in response to intangible threats like global climate change?
  • Feel more self-confident than reality justifies. (Recall the Challenger Disaster or the stock market performance before the Great Depression.) So how can we get people to attend to real threats?
  • Quickly classify things. (Us-them, good-bad, business-government, customer-supplier). So how can we get people to understand complex interdependencies when they are already in information-overload?
  • Gossip (i.e., the grapevine). If gossip represents our preferred mode of communication, is it any wonder that, despite newsletters, bulletin boards and executive presentations, many employees complain about the lack of "communication"?
  • Feel most comfortable in communities with no more than 150 members. (Think about the enduring prevalence of small businesses, accounting for about 60% of all employment). So is it any wonder that employees in behemoth corporations feel disenfranchised?
  • Seek superiority or security in hierarchical systems. (Consider all the times we claim something requires the buy-in of top management.) Might this explain why matrix management and self-directed teams seem to be fragile structures?
  • Lead in different ways. (Entrepreneurs' businesses often outgrow their management style.) So how can we make sure we have the leaders to match our challenges?
  • Participate in public competitions, particularly true of men. (Hey, I didn't say this; Nicholson did. Remember your last sales contest, United Way Campaign or executive meeting.) Does this explain why so many women leave corporations to start their own businesses?

Tribal-sized Organizations

According to evolutionary psychology, people feel most comfortable in groups of up to 150 because we used to live in tribes which tended to break apart into bands when they reached a couple hundred people. And our ideal team size of 8-12 people approximates the size of extended families.

So how might we organize if we used family and tribe as a model for group size? Rather than exhorting the masses to identify with a behemoth corporation,teams and departments might be limited to about a dozen people and corporations could be divided into autonomous business units of approximately 150 people. ABB Asea Brown Boveri, a $30 billion electrical engineering company, is famous for prospering in this manner. Percy Barnevik, president and CEO,reconstructed the corporation into 1,300 individual businesses worldwide.

What keeps us from doing this? Often the barrier is technology. Manufacturing processes are often limited by the equipment. But recall the success of mini-steel mills, something many claimed was impossible. Perhaps if we made"tribalism" a product design goal, we could create machines that serve us instead of the other way around.
So consider these actions:
  • Divide larger organizations into independent business units.
  • If you can't do that, redesign your planning, measurement and reward systems around this scale.
  • If you are merging two companies, assess the fit of their tribal values. If they are quite different, the best success seems to come in keeping a hands-off relationship, as in the case of Disney's purchase of Miramax.
Matrix structures (including the "centers of excellence" promoted by reengineering devotees), which make people be members of more than one tribe, appear to be "unnatural" and are devilishly hard to manage. People tend to ignore one of the relationships. For example, one of our clients, an environmental agency, is organized around "media" (air, water, etc.) but the employees are exhorted to also be matrixed to geographic regions (a more logical structure for managing environmental problems.). Predictably, they tend only to pay attention to their functional/media tribe.

This is made worse when organizations try to present the two relationships as equal. In these situations, it may help to describe the relationships as concentric circles rather than equal bonds or hierarchical organization charts. For humans have long dealt with family-band-tribe-nation relationships rippling out. The "hierarchy" imposed by the concentric circles should represent objective reality (e.g., a watershed is larger than one river, and air quality must be managed on a regional basis because it blows beyond county boundaries) rather than some arbitrary structure imposed by management.

Vision Quests, not Mission Statements

If emotions are our first filter, why do organizations so often ignore the power of passion, vision, and affiliation. Mission statements posted on the wall and job descriptions don't come close to creating a sense of community or a passion to contribute.

At AXIS, we set aside one day each quarter to think. We call them DaVinci Days because they are intended to spark creativity. We frame a question,travel to a place of beauty and talk...about what we want, how we feel about what we have been doing, what we need to learn next. Sometimes we take other people with us. When do you give people at work time to speak from their hearts and integrate that new knowledge into the work you do? If emotions are the first filter, let's tap into them.

What might a corporate "vision quest" look like? Marvin Weisbord's "future search conferences" are one model where approximately60 carefully selected people spend two to three days reviewing their past,analyzing the present and imagining their future. If we organized into tribal sized groups, this process could easily involve most of the organization.

There are many other methods to tap into people's passion that take less time. You can stage mock press conferences or use guided visualization.The Corporate Mystic provides a personal visioning process using three people:a visioner, facilitator and scribe. After choosing a goal or problem, the facilitator asks the visioner to imagine success and then answer a series of questions including: What is it that makes this a success? What did other people learn of most value that allowed them to contribute? What were the course corrections that might have thrown you off?
Distilling some of the tips from many visioning processes yields this advice:
  • Schedule uninterrupted time for reflection
  • Build in quiet time for contemplation
  • Create a safe space to speak openly
  • Focus first on the future, what you want; imagine it with all your senses
  • Use a variety of methods to tap into people's creativity: drawing, skits, brainstorming, physical activities, etc.

Ceremony more than Communication

Think of all the meetings you have as ceremonies: the stockholders meeting,staff meetings, your performance appraisal. What's missing? The ceremony!Rituals integrate our emotions into a task. At work, where is it that we dance together, have rights of passage, recognize acts of bravery, appreciate our bounty, and honor our "elders"? Strong teams do many of these things. In most organizations, the closest we come to ceremony is the goldwatch after 30 years of service and donuts at mind-numbing staff meetings.Come on. We can do better.

Dancing together—-Dancing involves synchronizing ourselves with the movement of others, that glorious sense of being part of a community performing something beautiful and symbolic. Singing in a choir or playing team sports can have the same effect. Many cultures use drumming. It is a ritual of joy, exhilaration and connectedness.

How could we create similar experiences at work? You will need to find practices which fit your organization's culture. It might be a well-orchestrated client presentation, the annual departmental soccer match or the volunteer assembly line preparing gift boxes for the needy during the holidays. But plan something that, for an instant anyway, aligns all your spirits.

Rights of passage-Birth, coming of age,marriage, death. These are passages around which most cultures have elaborate ceremonies. Much of the joy of such ceremonies comes from the anticipation(preparing for the wedding), and from the repetition of rituals (so the parents relive their own wedding vows at their daughter's service). In society,each ceremony has its own unique rituals.
Yet at work, how do we handle the new hire's first day, a promotion,the completion of an important project, or the return of an injured worker?At worst, it's business as usual: oh-you-must-be-the-new-guy. At best, it's often lunch paid for by the boss, the same ritual regardless of the passage.

We need better, more meaningful rituals for each of our work passages. Atone client, we structured a welcoming "ceremony" that involved each person talking about what it was like to work in their high-performance environment--an act which meant as much to the old team members as the new.Projects could be capped off with a ritual of appreciation to thank the client. Perhaps promotions could be met with a tamer version of the bachelor's party.

Recognizing bravery- In our organizations we still hunt (for customers), go to war (with competitors), protect the tribe (against hostile take-overs) and withstand great pain (during lay-offs). Fortunately most managers have evolved past the that's-what-they-get-paid-for style of leadership. But we don't often make enough hoopla over our accomplishments.

I will never forget the day I came back to the office with a huge contract from Cadillac, turning around the dismal financial performance of my then employer. My employees had spent all morning stringing paper Cadillacs across the office. One proudly presented a pink Cadillac mug brimming with flowers.There were exuberant hugs and verbal applause.

We often talk about celebrating our successes but rarely reach this "high."What made this instance so memorable? The strength of emotions. What made this so effective? Like many ceremonies, it required preparation on the part of those who would participate.

So perhaps we shouldn't delegate the thankless task of planning the company picnic or holiday bash to just a few people. Instead, ask everyone to make some effort in the preparation: cook a dish, make a decoration, or tell a story.

Appreciating our bounty-Thankfulness is part of many tribal customs. The Iroquois had a ritual before beginning a meeting of systematically thanking everything in their universe: the sun,the moon, the rain, the bird, the fish. It served to "center"people and generate a certain reverence. Try recounting your blessings next time you are feeling down; it changes how you feel and see the situation.

Contrast this with our tendency in corporations to focus on what's wrong and to take for granted what is going right. For some the only acknowledgment of bounty is the stub on their profit sharing check, more of a pay-off than a celebration.

So try these techniques:
  • Start your team meetings publicly thanking members who have contributed or helped.
  • At least four times a year, take time out to talk together about your accomplishments, hopes and new goals (what we call a team improvement review).
  • At least once a year, plan a memorable, symbolic celebration that will keep people buzzing for months and be the source of legends. (See the Case Corner for an example.)
  • Investigate using appreciative inquiry instead of problem solving as a process for making improvements. This forces you to examine what has gone well and how to get more of that.
Honoring our "elders"-It is the elders who give us a connection to our past. They carry the stories, maintain the values, bring the wisdom of a long lifetime, and moderate the impulsiveness of youth.
In a corporate sense, "elders" may not necessarily be older,but rather be those with more longevity, wisdom, foresight, or skill. We take for granted that managers should give feedback to employees, but how often do managers get positive feedback from their employees? How often does the CEO hear words of appreciation? How often do we thank all our "teachers"?We have Secretary's Day but no Founder's Day. It sounds absurd even to suggest it. But what does it do to our leaders when we neglect to thank them for taking the lead? (Recall that some people are genetically predisposed not to.)

Case Corner: Designing a Memorable Ceremony

Vancouver Housing Authority wanted a symbolic event to kick off their implementation of a new corporate direction. We helped them design a one-day "big event" for all employees. After clarifying outcomes, we jointly developed startling ways to grab attention. These included a room-sized corporate time line (painted by local school kids) which the director, after busting out of a "time machine" in a wizards costume, used to pay tribute to their proud history. Teams/ departments developed skits to interpret the new direction; one group led us all in a raucous sing-along set to the YMCA song. We ceremoniously threw out unnecessary procedures into a trash can, and wrapped up the day by planting a garden at the county fair grounds. While many on the management team feared the "big event" might be considered corny, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Hunting, Gathering and Play

Did you know that the average "work day" for "primitive"tribes tends to be around 3 hours? This is the time it takes them to gather water, prepare food, provide shelter, etc. Much of the remaining time isspent talking, napping, playing. Gossip, also part of our evolutionary success strategies, was a practice which helped to hold the community together and track shifting power bases.
At first blush, the thought of dropping our workday down to this level seems unattainable, and perhaps it is. But it is instructive to remember that this is the work schedule we have evolved to live with. Think about the problems we create by violating this threshold: accidents, burnout,stress, childhood delinquency. We were never intended to sit in a cubicle all day long or work eight hours straight.

How might we adapt the working day, just a little, to these innate patterns? The Gymboree Corporation rings a bell at 3 PM each Thursday and declares recess. Their employees take walks and play four-square, a popular schoolyard game. You might want to try some of these suggestions:
  • Make time in staff meetings for something playful. (I know a facilitator who allows time for a "humor break" in each meeting where someone shares a joke, cartoon, etc.)
  • Provide enough variety of work tasks during the day to keep people fresh. Schedule the intense physical or mental work in two bursts during the workday, interspersed with more relaxed, even mindless, repetitive, hypnotic tasks.
  • Encourage playful, child-like behavior. Play tag in the parking lot during lunch to get the blood flowing again. Make playful items available: nerf balls or squirt guns.

Conflicts and Competition

Competition, also a part of human nature, usually is interwoven with ceremony. (Think about the Olympic Games.) But it is the ceremony that bounds it and keeps it safe. I have heard that in Argentina years past, two men who wanted to compete over a woman would gather in a public plaza and dance the tango -- together. (What an image!) An aboriginal woman from Australia told me that when two tribes came into conflict, they would battle, but the moment one person was injured or killed, the battle ended. Symbolic, safe, public, bounded.

Instead in our organizations, we let competition run rampant. Intentionally and unknowingly we use financial measures to pit divisions against one another, performance measures to pit shifts against each other and performance reviews to pit employees against each other.Competition isn't an event, it's become a milieu. And it eats away at the bonds that hold our tribe together.

Instead of keeping people at a constant state of fight-or-flight adrenaline rush, try to:
  • Give a competition a clear beginning and ending through campaigns and contests.
  • Develop methods that reduce the negative side effects of losing. For example, Honda chartered parallel teams to design a car where only one design would actually be built. But they went out of their way to applaud and integrate the innovations from the "losing" team, reintegrating them into the tribe. (Pascale, 1990)
  • Since men may be more disposed to competition, find other ways to motivate those women (and men) who prefer cooperation.

Council of Elders instead of a Boss

All primates have leaders and we are no exception. Some people seek superiority--tobe in control--and most share a tendency to look to our leaders for comfort and direction. Just like other primates, our leaders help us understand our place within the community (pecking order), define the community bounds(who's in and who's out), and most importantly provide direction, especially during a crisis. "Leaderless teams" are a figment of our imagination.A leader will emerge whether we want one to or not.

Where we run afoul in our organizations most often, though, is not that we expect no one to take the lead but rather that we expect one person to lead. According to evolutionary psychology, we lead in different ways.

To expect one leader to lead in all situations is a mistake, especially in today's complex business climate. So rather than associating leadership with a person or position, we should consider it a function. Ask, "Who is the best person to lead us through this task?" In the shared leadership of self-directed work teams, for example, leadership is assigned based on competence rather than a position.

Nicholson also claims that some people are programmed to follow, not to lead at all. This may explain why in self-directed teams, some members never take a leadership role. We can encourage them to get involved, but some may be predisposed not to assume a "star point" role, for example. And forcing them to is probably a mistake.

Many indigenous populations have a council of elders, one way of sharing leadership and balancing one another's weaknesses. From a practical point of view, our organizations have no such thing. The board of directors, aside from often being a patsy to the CEO, isn't much involved with the rest of the tribe. What if every department or team had its own council of elders,knowledgeable people to whom they could go for advice, support, comfort,direction, and occasionally, arbitration? Without this leadership, conflicts go on too long, issues don't get addressed, people feel disconnected, and the organization lacks direction.

So make sure the leader fits the situation:
  • Provide multiple leadership roles. (Star points, de Bono's six thinking hats, and the meeting roles in Mining Group Gold are all practical examples of this.)
  • Develop a team approach to managing. (When one of our clients redesigned their functional structure into cross functional teams, the functional supervisors each became a "process coach" to a particular team but became the "technical coach" in their areas of expertise for the whole department.)
  • Consider assigning a council of elders for every team or department.

Seeing the Whole, Our Greatest Challenge

For life in the 21st Century, our greatest weakness is our inability to perceive and react to complex, systemic problems. According to evolutionary psychology, we quickly classify things, under-estimate threats, and thenfight ferociously once the threat becomes apparent.

Classifying things reduces our ability to appreciate their complexities.For example, in our competitive culture, we interpret what we see through that lens. Watching National Geographic specials, I came to expect the African savanna to be rife with eat-or-be-eaten competitive behavior. So on a trip to Zimbabwe I was amazed to discover the bohemian lifestyle the animals lived. The vast majority of the time was focused around cooperation and synergy--termites cultivating their own food, a bee guide bird that leads humans to honey so it can eat the grubs, and the baboon warning the grazing zebra of the presence of lions--instead of Darwinian acts.

Once we classify something, we stop observing its true nature. So what? Remember when "Made in Japan" equated to junk? We leave ourselves open to being blind-sided when we simplify something to cram it into a mental box.

So how might we keep seeing what's real instead of our reality redux? Use processes which force us to view the world with new eyes. For example,bring in naive outsiders when you analyze your
processes. Consider the diversity of thinking when you form a team or hire people. Read publications that promote different world views, especially ones you disagree with. Challenge your own assumptions.

Evolutionary psychology also indicates that we underestimate risks. This is especially true of discontinuous events. Recall the Kobe earthquake or Harry Truman now buried under mountains of ash on Mt. St. Helens. Before the big eruption, I too discounted scientists warnings of a cataclysmic event. So how do we get our Pollyanna brains to be more realistic in our assessments?
  • Identify important factors which are subject to the "boiled frog" phenomenon (where the frog doesn't notice the water is getting hotter), especially those with positive feedback cycles and long lead times. For example, global climate change may lead to more forest fires which will lead to more CO2 in the atmosphere which will lead to more climate change (a positive feedback loop). CFC's will continue to destroy ozone for decades after we stop emitting them (a long lead time). Track these factors and take seriously any minor changes in trends.
  • Also, identify discontinuous processes which like a pendulum can reverse course or like a volcano can erupt. Monitor these as well.
  • Use scenario planning to identify strategies to deal with these potentialities. Get everyone in the organization involved in scanning the horizon. (For one easy method, see the clipping process in Flight of the Buffalo.)
  • In meetings, assign a devil's advocate role or use de Bono's "black hat" liberally.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing to remember about human nature is our tendency to avoid risk when we're comfortable but then overreact fiercely when threatened. Your ability to operate a business is dependent upon the existence of a civilized society. Sarajevo and Kosovo are but recent reminders of how tenuous that can be.
  • So watch for boiling points where citizens or employees are denied their basic rights and needs through politics, famine, work practices, or other injustice. Use your influence to turn the situation around.
  • Be sensitive to cultural differences so you don't precipitate a backlash by assuming the American Way is the right way.
  • Use SA 8000 or some other framework for assessing the social responsibility of global operations. (See Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency (CEPAA) at
  • On a smaller scale, use empowerment, teams and open book management as a way to help people see how they fit into the big picture and get more control over their lives.

Think of the potential benefits of "natural work." By tapping into emotions and employing more meaningful rituals, we can gain a more committed workforce. If we keep our organizations down to 150 employees,we may gain stronger loyalty. By aligning work to our natural rhythms we should reduce mistakes and accidents. If we confer leadership based on the requirements of the situation, we should get better decisions. It is far easier to adapt our workplace to human nature than expect human nature to adapt to it.


de Bono, Edward (1986) Six Thinking Hats. Little Brown & Co.
Diamond, Jared (2011) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books
Hendricks, Gay and Kate Ludeman (1996). The Corporate Mystic. BantamBooks.
Kohn, Alfie (1986). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. HoughtonMifflin.
Mander, Jerry and Edward Goldsmith (eds) (1996). The Case Against the Global Economy and a Turn toward the Local. Sierra Club Books.
Michalko, Michael (1991) Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity for the 90's. Ten Speed Press.
Nicholson, Nigel. "How Hardwired is Human Behavior?" Harvard Business Review (July/August 1998) pp. 135-147.
Pascale, Richard Tanner (1990). Managing on the Edge: How the Smartest Companies Use Conflict to Stay Ahead. Simon & Schuster.
Schwartz, Peter (1991). The Art of the Long View. NY: Doubleday Currency (on scenario planning)
Trompenaars, Fons (1994) Riding the Waves of Culture: Irwin.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why the purpose of business isn't to satisfy customers

Over the decades, what society expected of business, what it thought as its purpose, has changed.

Way, way, back, during the time of Hudson's Bay Company, corporations were chartered (with a specific purpose like building a road and a sunset clause) to serve the public good (and often feed the coffers of the nation states that chartered them.)

By the time I was out of college, long gone was the focus on public good. In the 1970's it was vogue to say the purpose of business was to make money. (And I thought, huh? That's like thinking the purpose of living is to breathe... a requirement for existence but not much of a purpose!)

Then in the 1980's the quality revolution happened and suddenly all the gurus were saying that business was to serve customers: Edwards Deming, Philip Crosby, Tom Peters. "The customer is always right" became the mantra.

Courtesy stockimages,
Yes, business has to have customers and they need to make a profit. But is that really their PURPOSE? It seems so limiting to view it as such. If my job as the president of a company is to serve customers, then it begs the questions, Which customers? Which services?  AXIS Performance Advisors could have been flipping burgers or making dog food. But it matters what business you go into! What do YOU want to do in the world? Why do we as humans come together into organizations?

So let me offer a reframing. I think organizations are the primary way in our modern society that we ....

What does this reframing do?
  • It shifts the focus from customers to managers and employees—who are we, what are we good at, what do we love to do, what problems do we want to be part of solving. what do we want our legacy to be? At AXIS, Marsha Willard and I reinvented our focus about every decade, following our interests as we developed and grew. This is far more empowering and satisfying than viewing your job as life-long servitude to customers. 
  • It calls on business to serve the greater good—Goodness knows, we need a bit more ethics and morality in business these days after the Enron-Worldcom-LehmanBros-JunkMortgage-CreditDefaultSwap messes! Instead, calls for Conscious Capitalism are emerging, recognizing that society needs business to help solve the world's problems and business needs a moral underpinning to attract talent and customers alike.
  • It makes it easier to reinvent the business when things change—In today's fast paced world, entire industries come and go. Think about the video rental stores, now empty storefronts. But if you keep asking yourself, "What does the world need from us now?" it opens up new lines of business and avoids the stagnation trap so many successful organizations fall into. 
  • It makes it easier to collaborate—Too many organizations and executives want to control it ALL. Gobbling up competitors, moving into all territories, bankrupting local businesses. But this often leads to hubris and over-reach. Why can't we just do what we do in our own ecosystem and help others succeed in theirs? For example, at AXIS, we designed our products like S-CORE and SPaRK in a way that other sustainability consultants could use them and profit from them, while we got a bit of income along the way. 
  • It makes it easier to let organizations die a natural death—In today's world, organizations take on a life of their own, fighting to stay in business, sometimes outliving their usefulness. But if the organization is the way each of us in the organization offers our talents to society, then when we leave, perhaps the organization doesn't have to keep going. Maybe perpetual growth isn't the goal or even useful. I have seen too many non-profits and a number of for profits try to hang on way past their use-by date.
So is the purpose of business to earn profits? serve customers? or provide a venue for us to contribute to society? I guess you could argue any of them as the 'end' rather than the 'means.' It is in fact a circular argument: customers can lead to profits which can lead to work that contributes to society which then can lead to more customers and profits. But "can" doesn't necessarily mean "will." I believe the starting point in that circle—the 'end in mind'—matters. If you think your purpose is ultimately to make profits you will act in one way. If you think it is to serve customers, it will lead to some different behaviors. Or if you think it is to manifest our gifts to society, yet other outcomes. Which organization would you rather work for? Or lead?

Try putting up this assertion on the company bulletin board next to the coffee pot and see what happens:

The purpose of organizations is to provide a venue for each of us 
to offer our talents to contribute to society. 
So what does the world need from us now?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Biomimicry and Business: What Nature Can Teach Us about How to Organize Work

Natural Work-Part 1This was originally published by AXIS Performance Advisors in 1999.

For quite some time, I have been wondering what "natural work" would look like. How would our organizations act if our society lived within the limits of nature instead of depleting it? What if our organizational practices were better aligned with human nature instead of taxing it? What if work became a natural expression of each person's gifts instead of something endured to fund "a life" outside? While we still are all to varying degrees stuck in the mechanistic view of the world, we are part of nature.

So, it would seem that we could learn a lot about how to improve our organizations by studying insights from science. In this century we have mostly applied lessons from psychology--with decidedly mixed results! But what about biology,anthropology, and physics? In fact, what we know about nature and ecosystems can be applied to organizations. This article explores what nature has to teach us about designing organizations. Natural Work—Part 2 will apply findings from evolutionary psychology to improve how we manage people.

A number of months ago, I read Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, a fascinating book on how to use nature as the inspiration for our own innovations. For example, the filament spiders weave into their webs is stronger than Kevlar, the strongest filament humans know how to make (used in bullet proof vests) and at the same time, more flexible. Spiders make this at room temperature, without creating hazardous waste, and the raw materials are insect guts!

Nature has had a lot more time to experiment with different strategies than we. According to scientists, if you compressed the entire lifetime of earth (4.5 billion years) into one day, the entire reign of Homo sapiens-- from stone tools and cave paintings to Y2K -- would occupy the last two seconds before midnight and the industrial revolution only the last seven thousandths of a second. But life has existed for about 4 billion years,most of that cosmic day. Over that time, the strategies that worked were repeated; those that did not were eliminated. Since nature builds on successful strategies (e.g., humans preserved the reptilian brain stem), perhaps our organizations can benefit from examining how nature works. We invent new strategies at our own risk. So, what do we know about nature's methods?

Nature's Time-tested Strategies

Nature, through its long evolution of experimentation, has developed sustainable strategies. According to Biomimicry, nature...
  • Runs on sunlight  (so why don't all our roofs face south so that we can attach solar panels when the technology becomes competitive?)
  • Uses only the energy it needs  (so why do we use energy to purify water, put that water into our toilets, flush and then purify the water again?)
  • Fits form to function  (so why do we have a rigid organization chart, regardless of the task we are completing at the moment?)
  • Recycles everything (so why do we have landfills?)
  • Rewards cooperation  (so why are we so fixated on competition?)
  • Banks on diversity  (so why do we exhort organizations to "stick to your knitting"?)
  • Demands local expertise  (so why do we have parent companies trying to direct distant operations?)
  • Curbs excesses from within  (so why do we think that economic growth will go on forever?)
  • Taps the power of limits  (so why don't we live within the limits of nature?)
  Let's look at how these principles might weave together to lead us to make different choices about how we do business. Where would we site our businesses? How would our work processes be different? What would we do with our waste? And how might the different parts of our organizations best operate?

Businesses as Ecosystems

How do natural ecosystems operate? First, they are tied to the land:altitude, the presence of water, climate, etc. (demanding local expertise). They operate within a symbiotic, complex network of mutually beneficial relationships (rewarding cooperation). The waste products of one organism becomes food for another (recycling everything). The organisms co-evolve,adapting to the changes of others (fitting form to function). It includes a wide variety of plants and animals (banking on diversity). In order to make maximum use of the habitat, each organism finds a niche so that the same tree can be home to multiple bird species, mammals and plants (using only what it needs).
Contrast this with our organizational "monocultures" where zoning separates industry in one area, commercial in another and residences in a third. Urban sprawl, the direct result of this practice, has gotten a lot of attention lately (Al Gore, Time Magazine, etc.) In nature, the few species that do migrate only do so only twice a year. So why should we line up like wildebeests on our freeways every day? This suburban (or as one wag coined it, "sub-urban") land-use pattern stems from a day when most of industry was dirty, smelly and hazardous, but as our economy increasingly is driven by knowledge work, we can more easily create mixed-use neighborhoods, more like plant communities where the variety of plants benefit one another.
Just as nature has keystone species upon which the entire ecosystems depend(often the most unassuming organisms like plankton), so to are our economic communities more dependent on certain organizations or industries. We would be wise to better attend to the diversity in our organizational ecosystems. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, we used to be highly dependent upon the wood products industry, until we hit the limits of nature and had to stop cutting, devastating entire communities. Now we have a "silicon forest," where we are now dependent upon high-tech. In nature, if a species disappears, another quickly fills its niche. When the chip business wanes, what industry is in the wings, waiting to take over its habitat to feed us?
Certainly we need to get away from our take-make-waste industrial processes.We take from the environment, make stuff, and then everything ends up as garbage. According to a study of US manufacturing, only about 6% of the materials used to create a product actually ends up in the product! While industry has gotten better about improving its efficiencies and finding markets for its waste streams, we clearly have far to go.
Take-back legislation may soon force us to close the loop and recycle.Originating in Germany, take-back legislation requires that manufacturers take back their products when they have reached the end of their useful life: cars, batteries, vcr's, even packaging. This legislation is spreading through Europe and parts of Asia and South America. So if you want to do business in those countries or do business with someone who does, the responsibility to dispose of your own product may be yours. This quickly leads companies to redesign their products so that at the end of their lifetime, they area resource, not waste, by making them easy to disassemble and reuse, coding all plastics, reducing packaging, etc.
The most famous example of industrial ecology is the town of Kalundborg,near Copenhagen. Here's how the companies recycle almost everything between a power plant, oil refinery, plasterboard factory, pharmaceutical plant,sulfuric acid manufacturer, and local farmers:
  • The electrical plant supplies steam to the oil refinery and pharmaceutical plant; it uses its surplus warm water to raise fish.

  • The oil refinery removes sulfur from the oil (to make it cleaner burning) and sells it to the sulfuric acid plant.

  • The plasterboard factory buys surplus gas from the refinery and gets calcium sulfate from the electrical plant.

  • Nearby farmers use the fish sludge from the power plant and by-products from the pharmaceutical plant as fertilizers on their fields.

This symbiosis is facilitated by their proximity. They do not transport their waste products over long distances; (remember, nature uses only the energy it needs.) What if you could cajole most of your suppliers to site their facilities down the street? Just in time manufacturing would be a snap. And what if you also gathered close organizations that would pay for your waste products. Instead of emptying waste into tankers or dumping processed water into the stream, you could build a pipe line to another facility.Think of the money you could save through reduced transportation costs and legal liabilities, not to mention the money you could make selling your waste to someone else who needs it.
And what says your vendors have to buy their own place? Cooperate. Let them do their work on your site. Why not share space, equipment, even people!When the wolf marks its territory, it just wants to keep out competitors,not also its suppliers and customers. But humans mark lines on a plat map and say, this is MINE. We don't find our niche in the habitat; we monopolize it.
If we created organizational ecosystems, we would end up with overlapping industrial "neighborhoods" around a supply chain. And just like with natural ecosystems, we would have "transition zones" which usually are thriving centers of life. Perhaps that is where people would live, in dynamic cultural centers.

Organizations as Organisms

So far we have been discussing the relationships between businesses. Now let's apply these natural strategies to individual organizations.
Let's use the human body as a metaphor. We have numerous organs operating independently, each with its own success factors, fitting form to function.(Hydrochloric acid is great for the stomach but not so great for the eye.)We even have entirely separate organisms in and on our body which help us digest food and clean our eyelashes (rewarding cooperation). What aligns most of these independent units, getting them to cooperate, are neurotransmitters,channels of information. We have cognitive processes but we also have immediate reactions, like when you pull back from a hot burner, requiring local knowledge.For the human body, growth is good only to a point, until we reach an optimal weight and height (curbing excesses from within).
Departments as organs:

Again, we tend to ignore nature's lessons, creating our own rules.In our organizations, we try to align the whole organization and treat everyone the same way: compensation systems, performance appraisals, planning systems,etc. It's as if we treat everyone like they are the stomach. Here, have some hydrochloric acid. No wonder we have caustic conflicts across departments.At one of our clients, the IT department is frustrated because it can't attract enough programmers because the company's vacation policy is built around blue-collar union workers. We have confused sameness with fairness.
Worse yet, many of those systems encourage competition instead of cooperation.Think of all the ways we create losers in our organizations, pitting people against one another: merit pay systems built on a bell curve, allocations for capital expenditures, measurements by shift.
Corporate nervous systems:
Instead of trying to control and be consistent, we might be better off building an effective nervous system (for both immediate reactions and well-thought out, coordinated responses), and letting the organs/departments/teams do what they think best. Radical empowerment. Radical shared accountability.Help teams understand their mission; let them know what's going on in the rest of the system; and let them meet their own special needs in their own way.
Multiple senses:
If nature demands local expertise, then why are business plans most often written by upper management? We need all our senses to make good decisions. The sales people touch the customer; the customer service reps hear their complaints; staff groups have a nose for emerging innovations. We need to add those inputs to the vision of top management to develop a good plan. At one of our clients,we started the business planning process not at the top of the corporation but instead at the front lines, generating a flood of ideas for improving the business.
Symbiosis in complex organisms:
How should multinationals operate if nature uses only the energy it needs and demands local expertise? Certainly, we should avoid shipping subassemblies and products around the globe in search of the cheapest labor but at great expense to our non-renewable energy reserves. Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce, gave a wonderful example in a speech: at the same time that a Canadian beer company is trucking its bottles to the US, a US truckload of beer passes on the highway on its trip to Canada. He said, "Why don't they just exchange recipes?" We have confused the need to use something with the desire to own it.
Size and structure: The body metaphor also calls into question the "grow this good" cancer-cell mentality. More production, more employees, more divisions, more profits. Perhaps the "right sizings" of the early1990's were a recognition that
for your purpose, there is an optimal size (curbing excesses from within). The larger you are, the more energy it takes to communicate, get things done, transfer learning, etc. At some point, the so-called economies of scale get overwhelmed by the demands of the bloated organization, in our view, much earlier than most executives would think. (In the next issue,we'll explore how human nature also puts limits on organization size.)
In the United States, we tend to view limitations as constraints, resenting how they infringe upon our freedom. But nature taps the power of limits and some organizations have discovered this as well. Limitations give us something to push off of, generating a surge of creativity. Organizations that have embraced sustainability as a corporate strategy are discovering that the limits of nature serve as powerful catalysts for innovation.
As you can see, there could be many bottom line benefits to aligning our organizations with laws of nature, even though I have only scratched the surface of this analysis. But hopefully, this has gotten you thinking.Look back over the nine natural principles and let us know what insights you generate as well. Remember, we are part of nature, not separate from it, despite a long tradition of mechanistic thinking.
The next issue of the AXIS Advisory will explore what "natural work"might look like inside the organization, applying findings about human nature(based on evolutionary psychology) to the management of people.

Case Corner: What to do with waste?

Burley Design, a Eugene-based manufacturer of bicycle carriages, does more than most to identify uses for their waste streams. In a recent plant tour,they showed us how they compost scraps from the lunch room, use the backs of all correspondence in printers and copiers, reuse packaging for sending out their products, and recycle/refill printer cartridges. They also do"pre-cycling" by ordering their tubing in the exact lengths they need, eliminating waste. But because of intense corporate espionage, they had to shred many documents and the recycler didn't want to take the fluffy bags. Burley was thrilled when we suggested they contact worm growers in their area as the shredded paper would make a great growing medium. We also suggested contacting their local Humane Society which might use it as bedding.We figured no corporate spy would want to dig through the stuff after that!In the end, they got a security box for sensitive documents which the recycler then picks up; this allows them not to shred the paper in the first place,saving time and energy.

Suggested Reading

A New Way to Grow: Building Communities for People published by CTrain,PO Box 2529, Vancouver, WA 98668
Biomimicry by Janine Benyus
Industrial Ecology, by Braden Allenby
Journal of Industrial Ecology published by MIT Press
"Learning for a Change" (Alan Webber's interview with Peter Senge),FastCompany May 1999
The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken
The End of Bureaucracy and the Rise of the Intelligent Organization by Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot
The Living Company by Arie de Geus

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Becoming the boss you wish you had

Becoming the boss you wish you had
Adapted from Reinventing Management, Copyright 1996 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.
It's not easy being a manager these days. With downsizing, right sizing,and delayering, most managers feel like an endangered species. Manager-bashing has become a national sport with articles like "Who Needs a Boss?"(Fortune Magazine) and consultants like Tom Peters and the late Edwards Deming blaming most organizational problems on management. Amidst all this abuse, organizations are asking managers to "empower" their employees,"hand off" many of their responsibilities, and become good "coaches" to their employees. It used to be managers just had to tell people what to do and kick butt if they didn't. Being a manager ain't what it used to be!

Why Management Is Changing

It helps to understand why these changes are taking place. Foremost on the list is global competition. It used to be that you could tell your customers,"Right, fast, or cheap: pick any two." Now customers are demanding ­and getting­ all of the above. Traditional management and its chain of command simply takes too long.

Work is also becoming more complex. With new regulations, laws, and technologies­ not to mention more diverse customers ­no one person can know enough to make informed decisions. Remember General Motors trying to sell their Nova in South America (where "no va" means "don't go")? Decisions require a team approach.

Knowledge work is replacing physical work as the primary competitive advantage. Physical work can be managed traditionally. You can observe my work and closely measure my output. But when the primary task is inside and between craniums, a traditional manager can't always tell if someone is working! You can't demand I have a good idea today. You have to engage my commitment. Typically traditional management only results in compliance.Organizations need the passion and energy of all their employees if they hope to compete in the 21st Century.

What's a Manager to Do?

The only value-added you bring is to do what your employees cannot do.If you are performing a task or making a decision that someone of lesser salary could do competently, you are wasting your organization's money.Tough words, but true.

So begin by taking an inventory of what you are doing. Then ask yourself,which of these tasks could employees do if given a little coaching, training,or assistance. Don't underestimate your employees! Employees in some organizations set their own pay scale, make major capital purchase decisions, and help set organizational strategy. At home, your employees manage complex schedules,lead volunteer efforts, hire contractors, manage budgets, and secure mortgages.You should be taking advantage of their existing skills. Delegate most of your responsibilities to your employees over time.

Then ask yourself, "If I gave up all these tasks, what would I love to do that would add value to my organization?" Chances are, you'll come up with a long list of potential projects, problems you'd love to solve,new information/fields/technologies to explore. Then build a proposal around the ideas you like the most and propose the concept to your manager.

Ask your teams what they'd like to see you do more of and less of. I always found my employees were the best source of information about how to become a better manager. Ask them, "What could I do to help you be more productive?" Add their requests to your list of new responsibilities.

What's the pay-back for you? One of our clients put it this way. "It's great! People bring me solutions instead of problems." Then she sighed."I don't have to be God anymore." Being a traditional manager means being responsible for everything, being expected to be right all the time, being expected to know everything that's going on. That's a lot for any one person to carry. Most managers are relieved to share their load.

There is more than enough work in most organizations to keep managers employed. It's just different work. Learn to be a good team builder, coach,and technical expert, and you will have no problem remaining employed.

What Helps Managers Change

Practically everyone now agrees that the role of manager is changing dramatically. Managers used to be expected to lead, direct, staff and control­ or so said our management training. Now, however, managers must learn to coach,empower, and yes, still lead. As best-selling author Larry Miller puts it,"The successful manager of the future... will learn to derive pleasure not from the making of decisions but rather from ensuring the best possible decision is made."

This is a dramatically different role, and the transition is a tough one for many managers. Those who can't make the change soon find themselves sidelined, demoted, or even laid off. With the trend toward flatter organizations,only those who can make this transition will keep a management job in the future.

So how can we help managers make this difficult change? AXIS Performance Advisors conducted a research study to answer this question. We asked managers in organizations across the country to indicate the effectiveness of various development strategies (e.g., attending workshops, talking with other managers,etc.). We compared the frequency of use and the effectiveness of each strategy. Here is some of what we learned.

What most managers tried to improve their skills

Interestingly, we found that the strategies that were used most often were the least effective! The most popular strategies were drawn from the middle or bottom of the list in terms of effectiveness. Most managers preferred:
  • Sharing ideas informally between managers
  • Attending public seminars
  • Participating in professional associations
  • Reading books and articles
  • Being involved in work redesign efforts
  • Attending in-house workshops
  • Participating in formal manager meetings where challenges were discussed
Notice that most of these strategies have no teeth. The strategies lack consequences for not using what was taught. There are no feedback loops to let the managers know how well they are doing. These strategies are safe and often helpful supplements to a management development plan. But they are inadequate if you are serious about changing your behavior and effectiveness as a manager.

What did the best managers find effective?

If you are serious about making a change, take note of what the most empowering managers did. ("Consultant" below refers to an internal or external advisor ­a coach for the coach.) These were the most effective strategies used by more empowering organizations (listed in order of effectiveness):
  • Provide the manager access to a consultant on demand
  • Conduct team assessments surveying the effectiveness of the work group
  • Have a consultant talk with the manager's employees to monitor progress (and report back to the manager as appropriate)
  • Have a consultant observe the manager and provide feedback
  • Take managers on site visits to meet with peers in more advanced organizations
  • Conduct climate surveys to assess employee satisfaction.
  • Note how these strategies provide feedback. They have teeth.
    Interestingly, in-house workshops fell in the middle of the pack in effectiveness.Attending public seminars, reading books, listening to audio tapes, and going to conferences were rock bottom on the list. Remember that this does not mean you should not do these low-impact strategies. Just don't fool yourself into thinking they will provide the development you need.

    Finding a Coach for the Coach

    All the managers I know who made a dramatic change have said that getting a coach ­a trusted advisor who would confront them and challenge their thinking­ was absolutely critical to their development. So it's no accident that three out of the top six strategies listed above refer to the use of consultants.
    Who can play this role? Often the best place to look is inside your own organization. If you can find someone who watches you interact with people every day and who is knowledgeable about the future role of manager, cultivate his or her trust and ask for feedback. In addition to these two characteristics, look for these qualities.
    Someone who:
    • Is not afraid to tell you the truth
    • Has good observation skills
    • Has good communication skills­ will be tactful but direct
    • Will maintain confidences
    • You respect.
    Often internal people lack a strong theoretical foundation to guide you.They may be able to tell you what you are doing wrong but can't show you how to do it right. In these cases, it is often helpful to supplement the feedback you get from internal people with that of an external consultant.They can also be particularly helpful if you are reluctant to reveal your weaknesses to someone inside your organization. In addition to the qualities listed above, look for a consultant who has practical experience (i.e.,someone who has actually managed people and shouldered the pressures of making payroll) as well as a strong theoretical foundation. Shop around until you find a someone with whom you feel comfortable.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Blind Spot in our Economic Development: 4 ways to meet our needs

Courtesy renjith kishnan,
In the news, you can hardly miss it....Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. Important-sounding figures are spouted:

Unemployment figures!
Dow Jones Industrial Average!

Everyone wants to GROW the economy to create more JOBS so that people can buy what they need.

But this is a very narrow view of what the economy is. Here's my definition:

The economy is how people meet their needs through trade.

So really what everyone wants is for people to meet their NEEDS, right? Jobs are a means to that end, but not the end. Using money is only one way to meet your needs, and often not even the best way.

Four ways to meet your needs

I have identified at least four ways to meet your needs:
  1. Decide you don't need it after all (voluntary simplicity). If you don't really need that new dress or car or expensive vacation, then maybe you don't have to work so hard to get it. Maybe what you really want is fun, entertainment, time with friends and family.Voluntary simplicity gives us time for the things that matter.
  2. Do it for yourself (self sufficiency). Grow a little of your own food, repair the hem, mow your own grass, learn how to tile your kitchen. Self-sufficiency can build self-esteem, marketable skills, and a sense of empowerment.
  3. Barter with others (sharing economy). Time banks allow people to help one another, trading time instead of dollars. People rent out their tools, their sofa and their cars. These transactions tend to build relationships, build community, more than monetary transactions that carry no sense of reciprocity.
  4. Buy it (the 'economy' everyone thinks about). This involves working hard, often for long hours, often for someone else in ways that leave you out of control over matters that affect you.
There is nothing wrong with #4 above. But our ENTIRE economic strategy is tied to it. And this strategy is the least likely to build community, self-sufficiency and empowerment.

So, Dreamers, what would it look like to have an economic strategy
 that gave equal weight to these four ways?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Community-Based Economic Development

A smarter strategy for the new economy

by Darcy Hitchcock
Images courtesy of visual facilitator, Claire Bronson.
 © Copyright 2011 AXIS Performance Advisors

What’s Wrong with Economic Development?

Everyone wants to grow jobs. But in this economy, there are a few problems with the traditional economic development model (which has tended to focus on bringing in big firms from elsewhere with big tax breaks to provide jobs which require skills our unemployed don’t have.)
  • Big firms are not the source of new jobs. Companies with fewer than 20 employees add the most jobs and large firms are shedding jobs.
  • It can set up a zero-sum game. When companies move (as opposed to set up new operations), they can devastate the community they are leaving.
  • These enterprises are more likely to pick up and leave since the investors aren’t grounded in the community.
  • The tax breaks undermine one of the main purposes of economic growth, to bolster tax revenues to provide local services.
  • The companies are often focused on the export market, which can lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions and various social impacts.
  • Because these enterprises often have home bases elsewhere, the capital leaves the community faster (what Jane Jacobs called a desert economy).
  • The organizations tend to be shareholder driven rather than stakeholder driven, so the wealth created tends not to go to the people doing the work but rather gets concentrated in the hands of a few, making our inequitable society even more so.
  • It sets up the need for workforce development training, which still leaves a large percentage of our population behind.

Community­‐Based Economic Development (CBED)

A community-based economic strategy might look like this:

Local citizens investing in... 
Local businesses that employ...  
Local people who need jobs to serve...  
Local needs.

So how might this work? We convened a group of people in Portland, Oregon to explore this idea. We cataloged our existing resources and discussed what would need to happen to accelerate this work by Factor 10. What follows is based on that conversation.


Sea of needs

I’m in the Pacific Northwest, so let me use a salmon analogy. Out in the sea are disorganized clusters of community needs and people wanting work. Somehow we need to bring them closer together so that a business opportunity can emerge.

What does the community need? We don’t want just any enterprise. Wouldn’t we rather grow enterprises that address local needs? So how do we figure out what the community needs and then promote organizations that will help address those needs?

Who needs opportunities? In this economy, we don’t just have the traditionally hard-to-employ population. We also have laid-off Baby Boomers who will likely never get another traditional job. And we have entrepreneurial young people coming out of school filled with idealism and disinclined to climb someone else’s ladder. These three groups have synergistic qualities.

What if, once a community need was identified, 
we gathered up people from all three of these groups 
to work together to create their own opportunities? 

Stop waiting for someone else to create a job for you. Make your own!


Streams of opportunity

Once an enterprise or project is envisioned, then they fall into three streams or categories:
  • Projects or initiatives that don’t require a new legal entity (eg, projects that come through the Oregon Solutions process)
  • Local businesses/organizations that predominately serve people locally (eg, a local restaurant or accounting firm; likely small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs)
  • Traditional businesses — which have historically been the focus of economic development — where an individual business may be expected to provide many jobs and the business strategy typically involves serving people outside the community (eg, exporting products to Asia or providing services in other states). The reason we have distinguished between these three streams is that the organizations set up to serve them tend to be different. For example, projects tend to get funded by foundations whereas traditional businesses may get funding from venture capitalists or angel investors.
Note here that I have not ruled out traditional business; but in this context, we see them being formed as a defined local need.

All three types of opportunities, my salmon runs, have to navigate a series of hurdles to make it to the spawning grounds of new opportunities:
  • Refine the strategy
  • Fund the enterprise
  • Launch the effort
  • Provide ongoing support


Community—Asset Map

CBED_resourcemap_090111With this structure, you can begin to identify resources you have in your community to support this. We did this in Oregon and found a host of existing organizations. We also found areas with few or little support (especially for those in the sea of needs). You may not be surprised to see that most of the resources were after an enterprise was envisaged, once the salmon had started up stream.

And the most resources of all were devoted to supporting existing traditional business. Hmmm.

Granted, this is not a complete list of services but there definitely seem to be trends. We have no robust infrastructure for figuring out what the community needs or matching them to people who need work-related opportunities! [Note: The yellow Post-It’s represented resources from an existing Portland Development Commission matrix.]


So what’s needed?

How do we get information about community needs better, faster, cheaper? Funding is weak for community assessments. Can we leverage crowd-sourcing, smart phones and the like to do rapid market research or poll for priorities? What if high school kids had an app that turned them into pollsters as they went around town, gathering data about community needs? Can methods like participatory budgeting engage a community that has lost its mojo?  

How do we redirect much of the capital that is going to the old economy to a community-based strategy? Communities are experimenting with local investment systems, redirecting money from Wall Street to Main Street.  

How do we help people make their own opportunities using skills they already have? Imagine helping immigrant populations develop community gardens to grow special produce unique to their traditions and then setting them up with food carts so they could sell to locals, outside offices, and serve as Meals on Wheels.  

Can we combine these three populations (traditionally unemployed, Boomers and young people) into viable social enterprises? Stop trying to 'fix' them in silos. Connect them! How do we help people who may feel disempowered to be more entrepreneurial?  

What needs to be done to bolster the informal economy? Would time banks or alternative currencies provide a medium of exchange for people without much money?  

How do we develop enterprises that are humane and democratic, like employee-owned cooperatives, where people have a voice in matters that affect them and the lion’s share of the wealth goes to those who do the work?  

CBED_rampitupconversation_090111How do we organize these existing resources in a way that creates synergy and accelerates progress? How do we increase by a factor of 10 the conversion of community needs into viable enterprises, employing people who want to contribute? I have more questions than answers but perhaps together we can figure it out.