Archive for October 17th, 2009
I was on a Harlem Line train out of Grand Central heading home from meetings in New York City when the conductor made an announcement that broke me out of my contemplative mood. “The next station is Valhalla” crackled over the loudspeaker.
The word Valhalla, meaning Hall of the Slain, is from Norse/Viking mythology and is the place where those who die fighting in battle reside and help Odin, the chief Norse god fight the good fight against his enemies. According to this ancient mythology those who don’t make it to Valhalla end up in the Norse underworld called Hel. Dying in battle under the Viking belief system provides a reward; you were able to enter into a blissful state, having the opportunity to fight alongside Odin.
This reward system also reinforced the fighting spirit of the living Viking warriors, for if you did not perform well in battle, living according to Viking standards and supporting your chief, your next station stop was not Valhalla but rather the punishment of Hel. (I have yet to find the town of Hel on the Harlem Line, but sometimes when I am stuck in traffic on the Van Wyke expressway I think I have seen the exit for Hel). Punishments and eventual rewards for proper behavior is one of the oldest stories going and a very common theme not only of Norse mythology but exists in virtually every culture on the planet.
It is such a common theme that the underlying concept of reward and punishment and more specifically the promise of future rewards for certain current behavior or the promise of future reward to make up for current deprivation, hardship and sacrifice has to meet a basic human need, playing off of a psychology or physiology common to us all, and certainly has been used to the advantage of governments, rulers, despots, and religions to control the masses and reserve power to the few. Promises of a brighter future, or future rewards are to be yours but only if you behave accordingly now. That promise works so well and is so powerful that there has to be an underlying mechanism at work. The Wall Street Journal (November 9, 2007) reports “a rose colored view of the future is the dominant hue, regardless of culture or nationality. This sense of hope boosts consumer confidence, creates market bubbles and spurs irrational exuberance”. The newspaper reports that a research team at New York University has found an area in the brain that seems to have as its role the creation of optimism about the future. And I would add that this sense of hope about the future also allows for delayed gratification when conditions of hardship are present. At least some of us (the article said the findings did not hold up for lawyers) seem to be hardwired for optimism, as it has likely value as a survival mechanism.
I have to wonder if this built-in sense of optimism makes it more difficult for us to collectively deal with pressing issues such as global warming, the slaughter in Darfur, or Iran’s nuclear weapons penchant as we may be predisposed towards hoping that they will be resolved favorably on their own. On the other hand this built in optimism could also be responsible for the mess in Iraq, with the planners assuming that the US troops would be greeted as liberators, having flower petals strewn in front of them as they paraded down the streets, or that if given a chance the populace would automatically embrace democracy.
In addition to being a heavenly location for the Vikings, Valhalla is also a suburb of New York City. In 1885 the Kensico dam was built across the Bronx River to create the Kensico reservoir in order to provide additional drinking water for New York City. One unfortunate outcome of the creation of the reservoir was the flooding of the town of Kensico, which now lies under the reservoir’s waters. In dryer periods when the water level is lower, an old church steeple and a few roof tops rise eerily out of the water, as a reminder of what was. Well anyway, a new post office needed to be built since the old one was flooded and the postmaster’s wife was a fan of Norse mythology and hence the name Valhalla was chosen for the post office. Over the years a new town grew up around the Valhalla post office and the train came through. In 1889 with New York City running out of cemetery space the 600 acre Kensico Cemetery was founded in Valhalla and with time additional cemeteries moved into town, presumable attracted somewhat by the name. Today as you ride the train you pass for a few miles what seems like the endless cemeteries of Valhalla. There are many famous people (e.g. Billie Burke – Glinda the Good Witch of the North, Tommy Dorsey, Danny Kay, Lou Gehrig, Rachmaninoff,) buried there and my less famous but no less important father is buried there as well.
Rewards and punishments and the basic human reactions to them, how they are used to motivate and to control have traveled with us from pre-Norse times up through modern times and are present in all of our organizations.
Most fundamentally our entire social structure is founded on the principle that if you work or invest you are rewarded with cash that enables you to purchase other goods and services. If your work is viewed as extremely valuable, or if you possess very specialized skills you are generally paid more for your work. People who do not work or contribute in some way to our society are scoffed at and looked down upon. While people today are enjoying retirement more, it was not too long ago that the statement “you work your whole life and then you die” was not too far from the truth for many. In the Norse mythology, you fight your whole life, getting to kill people and then if you fight well after you die you get to fight and kill some more – ah heaven.
Our organizations today reward people by paying them for their contributions, giving merit increases to those who contribute more, promotions, recognition and praise flow to those most deserving or if you hold cynical pessimistic views, sometimes to those best able to work the system. Performance appraisal is used to provide a grading system so as to know who should get what level of reward and provides the mostly unstated threat that if you don’t measure up punishment will follow (possibly being sacrificed to one of the Norse gods).
Delayed gratification for some workers (i.e. public servants) can be defined as a willingness to put up with lower salaries or poorer or dangerous working conditions in order to obtain an afterlife – retirement benefits. Namely, lifetime healthcare, retirement eligibility after periods as short as 20 years and a defined benefit retirement plan that guaranteed a steady retirement income. These benefits have all but disappeared from the private sector corporate world.
I wonder if workers are becoming more unwilling to live a life of current deprivation, hardship or of delayed rewards when those after work-life retirement rewards are no longer to be had. (One study mentioned on NPR had new college graduates expecting their first promotion after about a year on the job. Delayed gratification is no longer part of their vocabulary.) Has this been part of the changes that have eroded the traditional notions of employee loyalty to the organization? Have the equity equations gone out of kilter? The lay press and others often describe generational differences in what people want out of the work environment, arguments that I view as fundamentally flawed. I would argue that any differences seen in how people of differing ages respond to surveys or in their job expectations are driven by differing economic circumstances that people live with – the current hardship or beneficent circumstances in which they find themselves – the equity equations. People I believe are fundamentally driven by universal drives and if placed in similar economic situations will make similar choices regarding work related decisions. When someone is seen as benefiting but not contributing their fair share, a universal feeling emerges among the other workers.
For instance, it is a very common survey finding to have employees indicate that they feel that management is don’t doing enough to deal with poor performers, and while modern workers may stop short of recommending ritual slaughter, they generally react positively when action is finally taken against the most egregious performers.
An interesting aside here is the origin of the words “you’re fired” – and no, it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. John Henry Patterson bought the National Manufacturing Company in Dayton, Ohio in the 1870s, changing its name to National Cash Register (NCR). He is often thought of as the father of modern sales techniques creating methods such as quotas, territories, sales meetings, role play, and company songs. Apparently many strange stories abound about Mr. Patterson including a weakness he had for letting executives go. From NCR’s own historical information “In the period 1910-1930 an estimated one-sixth of the top executives in the nation were former NCR executives.” In order to make sure an executive knew when he was let go, the story goes Mr. Patterson had the executive’s office furniture placed in front of the building where it was set on fire, and hence the term “you’re fired” came into being.
Given that people are people and respond very similarly and somewhat predictably to the circumstances in which they find themselves, our organizations get exactly what they deserve when they treat people either inappropriately or appropriately. And while our various institutions and leaders have evolved techniques over time to take maximal advantage of our humanness, sometimes for no ones benefit other then their own, holding forth promises of future rewards or current punishment, when certain fundamental lines are crossed we do seem able to snap out of it and demand that the equity or fairness equations be restored.
Just a few stops past Valhalla is my own stop, Pleasantville. Hmmm…now that is a nice name. I wonder where it came from.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
The key to long-term organizational and managerial success is transparency. It will sound somewhat contradictory to some, but transparency around processes, products, and procedures can take the organization to higher levels of performance than those organizations and managers that shroud their activities in mystery.
One challenge I often discuss with senior management groups is the necessity to pick and choose which aspects of performance they will excel upon. As a planning activity when responding to survey results, the organization should not simply have a knee-jerk reaction to the lower or more average rated items, and likewise they should not have a knee-jerk reaction to those items that are simply highly correlated to some outcome. Survey results are a snapshot of what is, at this moment in time, and senior management’s role is not only to manage for what is, but to put into place what can be, what needs to be, to achieve long-term organizational success. Surveys are really good at predicting the future only if the future is a static state – not a likely situation. However, surveys can give you a very good grounding as to where you are now and that forms a stepping off point into the future.
No organization has infinite resources, so no organization can simply say that “we will be the best in the world at everything we do”. Organizations need to choose, for their market niche, for their industry, for their state of organizational evolution, what aspects of performance will give them a competitive advantage and enable them to succeed. Will we become the most customer focused, the most innovative, the highest quality, the best value, the most trusted, the most transparent? If you take a look at the top performers across a standard set of employee survey items, you will find a somewhat different list of top performers across the items, an indication that there is variance in the list of top performers by area, and one key to success is to pick the area(s), the thread that you will pull that will lead to across-the-board organizational success.
I would argue that for many if not all organizations transparency is one of those keys. Transparency not only conveys confidence, fairness and quality, organizational transparency forces quality and fairness to occur and hence creates confidence in the organization and its management; transparency is a linchpin. When the organization operates in a fashion that clearly demonstrates that they have nothing to hide, the only path to long-term success is in fact to have nothing to hide. When your customers and your employees have the ability to look within your organization and to see how the work is getting done, how day-today processes are being handled, how decisions get made, in an open and clear fashion the organization is forced to do many good things regarding how it runs the various components and processes that make up its business.
Humans though have a tendency to have secrets, to keep some information close to the vest, as it is often viewed as giving a competitive advantage, even if it is only for the short-term. For instance, we build many of our games around just such thought processes. Having a “poker face” means that you don’t telegraph the cards you are holding in your hand to your opponents. Football teams don’t shout out what they are going to do on the next play, they huddle to share that information in secret. The pitcher on the mound during a baseball game will give the barest of nods to the catcher, as signals between the two get secretly shared regarding what the next pitch to be thrown will be, or if the pitcher should throw over to first base instead of home plate. How good does a pitcher have to be though to be able to say, “here comes my fastball or slider, just try to hit it”. If you are a really good pitcher you might get away with that, the more average ones can not. Will your organization step up to the plate and be really good, saying to the competition “here is what we are doing, just try to do it as good as us”, or will it settle for average? The natural tendency of course is to be secretive.
Going beyond our games, other examples abound. Lawyers and prosecutors will stake out positions prior to a trial regarding what sort of plea deal would be acceptable to a defendant or to the state, treating the court room as a version of a high-stakes poker game, trying to get the best “deal” for their client or for the state. They stake out almost absurd positions at times in an attempt to get the most advantageous result. (A comedic interpretation of this can be found in “Liar, Liar” a film in which Jim Carrey plays a lawyer who can not function when he is forced to tell the truth, to be transparent, for 24 hours). Businesspeople behave in a similar fashion when negotiating with suppliers or customers, during an acquisition or when two organizations decide to merge together, behavior that does not lead to long-term trust and relationship building. Purchasing agents from the company side and sales people from the supplier side have made lack-of-transparency into an art form. There is a tension that arises from keeping secrets, from hiding things a bit. From the world of fashion it is well known that a woman who desires to dress somewhat provocatively, realizes that is often more effective and provocative to cover some things up, to keep some things hidden, rather than merely putting all of your parts on display, but beware, what you don’t see is also what you get.
It may be viewed, regardless of whether you are an organization, manager, lawyer, prosecutor, pitcher, quarterback, sales person, purchasing agent, or scantily dressed woman that you need to keep secrets, because the other side is keeping secrets and you will be at a disadvantage unless you compete in the same fashion. So now we regress to the lowest common denominator. Is that what being human is all about? Is that the noble end state to which we should strive?
Magic black boxes that have secret processes and information contained within abound all around us, but I am not a black box kind of guy. For instance, when I present survey results back into an organization, I want to point out in the data what is intuitively obvious to any thinking person, what they themselves could easily see if they knew to look at the data in a certain fashion, in other words to be transparent. When I buy a product at a store, I want to know where it was made, what it is made of and what it will do, not simply relying on the marketing information splashed across the label in advertising-like fashion.
I find that a lack of transparency in organizations is often a cover up for lack of robust, high quality processes. The logic is something like “I can’t show you how something is actually done because then I might have to justify why it is done that way, that it is not arbitrary, and that is something I can not do”. I find I have to bite my tongue in meetings when someone says “we have a terrific way of doing this, or figuring out that, better than anyone else has”, but they are often very short on details – details that would point out that in reality they are simply flying by the seat of their pants.
Scam artists play on the natural human tendency of some to trust the word of others. Trust me, take it on faith, believe me, or believe in me…this week in the Wall Street Journal there was an article that described how some organizations are getting around the national “Do not call” list by sending out flyers to the elderly that have a scary warning about how they could lose their house and that they should send away for more information on how to avoid this potential tragedy, a card that is designed to look like it is coming from a federal agency. By sending in the card the elderly are opening themselves up to all sorts of sales gimmicks by those they should trust the least – something that is conveniently not mentioned in the flyers sent out. This lack of transparency will last only for a short while, as these organizations operating in this fashion will be ferreted out and stopped. They have nothing real, nothing of value, and nothing substantial to offer people and hence need to rely on a lack of transparency for their short-term survival.
Imagine a fawn bending its head downward at the edge of a pond in order to sip a cool drink of water. Suddenly the leaves on the edge of the pond, a short distance away from the fawn, rustle. The fawn bolts and runs away from what it perceives as a potential threat. The fawn did not know if that rustling was simply the wind or a coyote looking for its next meal. But by making the assumption that it was a coyote or similar threat, the fawn, while missing out on its drink, helps to assure that it lives to see another day. This assumption by the fawn of intelligent intent by something that may simply be the wind has evolved as a survival mechanism and exists in humans as well. I have a picture that shows a gorilla holding a book in its hands in a position that any human would use if we were reading that book. When I show that picture to an audience, they are drawn immediately to the conclusion, at least momentarily, of intelligent intent or purpose behind the gorilla holding that book in such a fashion. It is only upon further reflection (maybe only a second or two later) that one realizes that gorillas can’t read. By the way the title of the book that the gorilla seems to be reading is “The Origins of Man”. The point here is that when humans find themselves in situations where there is a black box, a lack of transparency regarding how things work or what is going on, there are plenty of mechanisms available to help us fill in the blanks and many times what we come up with on our own will not necessarily reflect reality, but possibly natural tendency.
In The New York Times (October 28th), there is a story about how everyday Russians are taking on the local traffic police because of seemingly arbitrary stops as they drive around. These stops are characterized as done by police who are actually looking for bribes rather than for any real infraction of the traffic laws. One citizen who has repeatedly pointed out the law to the police and refused to pay the bribe was hauled away and beaten to the point where for the next several months he will be in the hospital. While there are a multitude of causative problems, such as the low pay for the police force, the fundamental lack of transparency as to how they enforce the law and why they are enforcing the law in the fashion they are, is indicative of severe systemic underlying issues that will eventually come to a head. Meanwhile confidence and trust in the system is eroded, the sense that the system protects the average citizen, and citizens should work through the system is nonexistent. The lack of transparency of the system is creating conditions whereby unless rectified, the system itself can collapse.
Sarbanes-Oxley was initiated in direct response to a lack of transparency on the part of organizational processes and procedures, a lack of transparency that was felt to be so severe as to require a legislative remedy. However, Sarbanes-Oxley is just scratching the surface of what an organization can be transparent about. Sarbanes-Oxley is viewed as very onerous and costly by many organizations, so what is the benefit of this increased transparency to the organization – how about long-term success. The real benefit to the organization will occur when they can be transparent in such a way that it is not burdensome to the organization, but rather enhances organizational functioning. Image for instance, if a client for a professional services firm could see their work progress through its various stages, in real time, throughout the organization. How much more attractive would that be to other potential customers? Imagine if you could track the history of the items you buy from source to store, so that you knew exactly what it contained, how it was handled and whether it had any defects? The list could go on and on.
In addition to the above there is another force that is making transparency so key to future organizational success. And in one word that is information; the amount of information that is available to us is growing at a phenomenal rate. In one study it is estimated that the amount of information we humans produce is growing at 50% per year! (I am making no judgments on the quality of that information). With the amount of information available and with people more and more used to using tools that allow them to access that information in a comprehensible fashion, it will become much more common for people to expect more information about the organizations they interact with, and about the products and services that they purchase. Those products and services couched in mystery, those organizations with obtuse practices and procedures will become less and less attractive entities with which to interact either as an employee or as a customer. Those organizations that continue to operate in mysterious fashion will be less likely to survive and hence organizational evolution as to the normal standards for transparency will occur.
The question is do you want your organization to be ahead of the curve? So throw me your best pitch.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
For many years, in manager training sessions which covered how to utilize your employee survey results, I always suggested to managers that they decide on which two or three issues were the most important and take action on that limited number. No more than two or three, not a long list of tasks, a long list that would almost certainly ensure that nothing would actually get done. Keep the list small, keep the list manageable. Everyone’s plate is already full and piling on to-do’s would simply become overwhelming. I am re-evaluating that advice, but my evaluation is not about whether managers should have a longer list of action items, but rather should the short list be even shorter.
While it may sound odd after spending so much time and energy on planning for an employee survey, collecting the data, analyzing it every which way and reporting it back, but I am beginning to feel that the best advice on what to do with it, in today’s environment is to pick “The One Thing” that rises to the top, that the management team feels will make a substantial difference and to go out and make a difference on it.
When you examine norm data and look at who are the top performers on a particular issue, which companies score most strongly for instance on customer focus, innovation, timeliness, cooperation, etc. or more broadly on Message, Performance enablement (against message) and Future related issues you find a somewhat different list of top performing organizations. Meaning that the list of top performers is a changing list, depending on which item you are looking at. It appears that a widely admired company for instance will not be the top performer across the board necessarily, but rather will excel in some areas, and be more average in others.
I would argue that no company has the time, energy or resources to simply come out and say that “we will be the best in the world on everything”, I would further argue that the logic doesn’t make sense. By definition resources are a limited commodity. No one has infinite money, people or time. Further there are relatively few cases where two companies exist in exactly the same market niche. In fact much time, money and people’s effort are spent in figuring out how to differentiate one’s products from the competition (both the products sold to your customers and the employee value proposition sold to your employees). Organizations need to choose which areas will be most critical to success in their niche. Will it be to become the most innovative, having the leading edge product to market before the competition, or to be the most responsive or to be the most value for the money spent etc? Sometimes these choices are somewhat contradictory. For instance if you are going to be the organization that provides the most value, stretching the consumer’s dollar, it can be difficult to be the most innovative, as innovation often carries a price tag as would concepts like being the highest quality or most responsive.
Companies that try to be all things end up having a confused Message that will hurt their performance, with changing directions and priorities the norm internally and customers seeing and experiencing inconsistencies. No one knows what the organization really stands for, including the organization.
Managers who are examining their employee survey results and require themselves to pick “The One Thing” are in essence defining what is important for their organization to stand for. What is the one thing that if done better than anyone else will enable the organization to succeed?
There is another aspect to “The One Thing” that is important and that is you can’t hide from it. When managers have picked 2-3 issues to tackle from their employee survey results they invariably go after “the low hanging fruit”, the easy fixes. While that is all well and good, sometimes after going after the fruit, they never quite get around to tacking the tough issues, the thorns higher up on the branch. Later on they can point to progress made in some areas, after all we got the low hangers, but the real challenges are still the real challenges, those thorns are still as sharp as ever. If managers pick “The One Thing”, when evaluating their progress they either did it or they did not, period.
The challenge is to pick “The One Thing” that has the potential for the greatest across the board impact, and that is where initial effort needs to focus. Which thing is the thread that if pulled will impact all the other threads that make up the organizational tapestry? Where do you concentrate? As you begin to think this through you rapidly come to the realization that picking “The One Thing” does not necessarily lead to any less work or effort to be expended in responding to survey results, it leads to a more focused, a more concentrated effort. In order to successfully accomplish “The One Thing” it is very likely that multiple other things need to be addressed as subtasks as well.
Should an organization pick one standard thing, driven from the top so that everyone is working the same issue or should local managers pick the one that is critical to them at their level? I believe that Sr. Managers should pick “The One Thing” that is critical at their level and they should champion it. They should be held responsible for getting it done and for driving it through the organization. Other managers within the organization should be picking their one thing, which is in support of the top level one thing, within their control, if the organization is to have a concentrated effort in responding to the survey results and actually make a difference on an identified critical dimension. I believe that there are some nuances that will come into play here depending on where an organization resides across the board on some issues, but in general that is the concept.
“The One Thing” can be scary. It is much easier to pick a whole host of issues, knowing that if you do a bit of everything you will likely touch on the ones that are really important to your organization, but you will touch on them in a lukewarm, less focused way. If you are looking for maximal organizational improvement impact “The One Thing”, while likely the most challenging, has the most potential to deliver.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
Slowly over a period of time it is possible for individuals to build a sense of complacency with the status quo, to accept organizational processes and procedures as they are, not to push the envelope as it needs to be pushed in order to progress, to keep the organization sharp. We do things a certain way because that is they way we have done it in the past, it is comfortable and we know it works. There is less risk in that….or is there?
There is a well documented innate tendency on the part of humans to seek consistency and there are many benefits to organizations on being able to provide a consistent environment for their employees and consistent products for their customers. Consistency though is not complacency. Consistency is being able to perform in a similar fashion on whatever your process or products happen to be and complacency is being satisfied with the current state of your process or products. Consistency is good, complacency is bad.
The innate tendency towards consistency can lead towards complacency with the status quo. The organization and the people within it strive for consistency (to the benefit of the customers) which is much more difficult to achieve in an organization that is constantly changing. So if we don’t change things, it is easier to be consistent, pleasing both customers and employees, but risking being lulled into complacency. The best organizations are those that can become rapidly consistent around delivering new products and implementing new procedures.
Complacency with status quo can be considered a poison, slowly eating away at what made the organization originally come into being and successful in the first place. Entrenched complacency with the status quo to any organization is the beginning of the end of that organization’s existence. Other new organizations that are not tied to the past, that are not burdened by legacy systems or processes will come along and surpass the complacent; sometimes slowly and sometimes not so slowly making them obsolete. Some organizations get shaken out of their complacency and can rebound with a reinvigorated spirit, others simply fade away.
Mithridatism is the slow ingestion of non-lethal amounts of a poison over an extended period of time in order to build tolerance or partial immunity against the poison. The word has it origins from Mithridates VI the king of Pontus (a small area on the Black Sea that is now part of Turkey) who was so consumed with the notion that someone was trying to poison him that he regularly ingested small doses of poison. Legend has it that assassins used the technique in order to be able to have a meal with their intended victim and suffer no ill effects, while the victim fell dead from the poisoned meal. Today some who handle poisonous snakes for a living practice this in an attempt to build up immunity in case they are accidentally bitten. (Please do not try this at home).
Standards of performance evolve and change. Product quality standards and process standards need to change within organizations if they are to remain competitive and keep their customers. How do you determine and at what level do you set your operational standards?
The recent tragic collapse of the coal mine in Crandall Canyon, Utah with 6 miners still missing and the deaths of several of the rescuers in a further collapse brought renewed focus on the issues surrounding how dangerous mining is as an occupation. And even though the standard for mine safety is set at zero accidents as the goal, each year there are deaths.
There are the aspirational standards (zero accidents) then there are the real operational standards (procedures) that lead to specific outcomes. Aspirational standards mean nothing unless the operational standards in place are aligned with them and supported. Would it be possible to set new operational standards, standards that would allow a mine to operate with zero deaths? Yes it would. But the current costs of doing so would likely mean that no mining would be done in this country and the jobs that go along with it would disappear. Rightly or wrongly there is a tolerance on the part of the employees to accept a certain level of danger in order to be employed, on the part of the mining company to maximize its profits and on the part of our society as a whole in order to obtain cheaper goods. We have to question though whether we have become complacent with operational standards for how mines operate – the slow ingestion of a poison leading in this case not to immunity but to death.
In the USA in 2006 the death toll from mining was 72. Contrast that to China where in 2006 the death toll from mining was 4746 (reported). However, in the early part of the 20th century the number of deaths in the USA from mining accidents was approximately 1000 per year. Does this mean we cut China some slack or do we hold it to a higher standard than the USA held itself as it industrialized? Do we have any right to hold China to a higher standard? The only justification for holding developing countries to a higher standard is globalization, a factor that did not exist in the early 20th century. Why? It is due to the new interdependencies that exist within a global marketplace and what can happen to everyone if a major component of that global marketplace collapses.
Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed examines why various societies over the millennia collapsed, their people at best mere memory in the historical record. Diamond lists eight historical factors and four newer factors which have and may contribute to the collapse of societies:
- Deforestation and habitat destruction
- Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses)
- Water management problems
- Effects of introduced species on native species
- Human population growth
- Increased per-capita impact of people
- Human-caused climate change
- Buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment
- Energy shortages
- Full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.
The chief difference between what has happen to societies that have collapsed in the past and today’s society is that the elements that he lists are now occurring on a global basis rather than being limited to a single society or country. The ominous foreshadowing that occurs in the book is how similar we as a global community are to the societies from the past that have disappeared. And that the solutions that need to be applied to prevent a potential pending catastrophe need to be applied on a global basis.
It might be a pipedream for now but the adoption of global standards in how goods and services get produced and delivered may be what is required to prevent our global impending collapse if the storyline in the book were to play out. If we continue that storyline as it is described will the collapsed happen in 50 years, 100 years or a thousand? It is hard to say, but as a species can we afford to be so shortsighted that we take that risk? Should we be complacent? Should goods and services and the production of those goods and services meet a common world-wide standard that certifies them as compliant, not from simply a quality standpoint but from a societal standpoint? Certifying that the impact that the production has on our shared global environment and on those who produced them was done in a sustainable fashion and without a variety of forms of labor abuse? Is that a new ISO certification?
The Kyoto Protocol split the world into Annex I countries (the developed world) and Non-Annex I countries (developing countries). Annex I countries participating in the Protocol have accepted greenhouse gas emission reductions to 5% below their 1990 levels collectively. Non-Annex I countries do not have emission limits. Some in the USA currently believe that by requiring a reduction of greenhouse gases that we will hurt the USA economy, and by extension the world’s economy, while some of the fastest growing economies, rapidly becoming the most polluting as well would be under no such restrictions.
The developing countries argue that the developed world had their opportunity to grow without restrictions that allowed them to become the economic powerhouses that they are today. And that their citizens (of the developing countries) have a right to a better life, similar to one enjoyed by others. Some of the developed countries (e.g. USA), argue that signing onto the Protocol would spell economic disaster and would give others an unfair advantage. They are all being shortsighted.
Given the vastly greater interlocking nature of the world today, the mutual interdependencies and the likelihood that if we go down as a global society, we will all go down together, I would argue that we in fact do need to hold China, the others in the developing world and the companies operating there (including mining) to a higher standard than we held ourselves as we developed. We also need to hold ourselves to an even higher standard – a much higher standard. Why? Because we need to lead by example, not to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing what is right for society from a global perspective. If America wants to preserve its current preeminent status as the world’s only true superpower and not take the path of other empires that have preceded us we need to be in the forefront of issues of world import. Yes, America is an empire (seemingly a reluctant empire) and yes we do have unparalleled and unchallengeable military supremacy if we choose to use it, however our real power and our legitimacy comes from the economic prosperity we spread and standards of behavior we, as a nation and a people, employ.
In the past, wars were often the causes of technological leaps, change and growth. Many technological advances as well as advances in medicine came out of the necessity generated from a war environment and the corresponding flow of funding. Space exploration has also been a source of much similar advancement. We as a global society have a new war to fight, one which many do not yet see, and a war upon which the future of the entire planet may ride. That war is one of developing unparalleled global prosperity as broadly as possible in such a fashion that the world itself can sustain all of us. There is only one country in the world that can lead that war today, and that is the USA. The USA must step up, rally the rest of the world to fight this battle with us and assume a leadership role in making sure that we as a global society survive. Great things lie ahead for those who engage with us in winning this battle.
The flip side of this argument is that there have been numerous doomsayers over the years, concerned about the manner of all sorts of things. The world will run out of food, a global pandemic will occur, a nuclear war will make the world uninhabitable, Yellowstone will erupt once again, a neighboring star will go supernova wiping us out in less than an eye blink, or an unexpected asteroid will do the job. Critics point out that all of these doomsday prophesies have proven to be false alarms in the past. Of course they have been because we are still here, but that doesn’t mean that you ignore the potential and don’t do your best to prevent potential catastrophes because you have not had one previously – that would be complacency.
Can we be complacent about what may be happening to our planet? Can organizations, whether they are companies or countries push themselves to think outside of the box, to try a new approach, a new way of thinking about this interconnected world in which we now live? I am up for it, how about you?
The story of King Mithridates VI of Pontus does not have a happy ending. His gambit to protect himself from poisoning had an unintended consequence. He lost a war and his kingdom to Pompey (a Roman general) and tried to commit suicide by ingesting poison. Because of his acquired immunity the poison did not work and he had to have a mercenary run him through with his sword. Mithradatism when applied has a very narrow application. You may develop some immunity to one specific poison, but there are innumerable other poisons and complacencies that can do you or your company in.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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Normal. What is it? Webster defines normal as: 2 a: according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle b: conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. Some make fun of others being “normal”, others make fun of people for not being normal, some work diligently to be different, praising their abnormality as a virtue, yet being “normal”, however that is viewed by their peers, and the acceptance that flows from that, is what every adolescent inwardly strives for – even if they don’t really know what it is.
Rod Serling’s series The Twilight Zone aired an episode on November 11, 1960, called “Eye of the Beholder”. The short story depicts a horribly disfigured woman who has had operation after operation in a desperate attempt to make herself beautiful, or at least not horribly misshapen. This is her last attempt and she waits impatiently in her hospital room until it is time to take the bandages off. Finally the appointed time arrives and as the bandages fall away she gazes into a mirror to see a stunningly beautiful face. A moment later she screams horribly and collapses into an inconsolable heap on the floor. The camera pans around the room to reveal that everyone else in this “Twilight Zone” is, according to our standards, horribly misshapen, and that here being misshapen is in fact “normal”. But being normal is not really that simple.
Most things in life are not binary. You are not simply rich or poor, tall or short, fat or thin, beautiful or misshapen, sane or insane. You typically fall somewhere in the middle of a continuum, and most of us typically fall in the “fat” part of the normal distribution curve and are hence dubbed “normal”. What is abnormal though? Is abnormal one standard deviation from the mean, two standard deviations, or three? And what we define as abnormal has broad implications for those dubbed so. The New York Times in an article titled “States Face Decisions on Who Is Mentally Fit to Vote” (June 19, 2007), describes two inmates, who by reason of insanity, were found innocent of murder and yet historically have been allowed to vote in elections. They were far enough out on the distribution (classified as abnormal) not to be held accountable for their crimes and yet are not far enough out on the distribution (classified as normal) to be prevented from voting. I could make a joke here but I will bite my tongue. There is an implication here that is worth mentioning. Namely, the implication is that you can be considered normal, (within a certain distance from the mean), on one aspect of who you are and can be considered abnormal in another. If we were all sociopathic killers, then being a sociopathic killer would be normal, as difficult as it is for us to think that way.
The continuum of normal runs in both directions from the mean. Think for instance of cleanliness. Most of us are just average when it come to our compulsiveness for cleanliness within our lives. However, some of us are exceedingly sloppy, at the lower end of the continuum and others of us are exceedingly fastidious, at the upper end of the continuum. Abnormality comes in two flavors, too much or too little of a characteristic.
Being classified as normal or abnormal does not just pertain to the individual level but also to the various levels of organizational units that we humans create. When one culture defines a specific degree or a certain aspect of their society (an organizational unit) as normal and a different culture defines that same degree or aspect as abnormal there exists the potential for an explosive mix. For instance, the circumcision of women is considered abnormal in western culture and is often described as mutilation. Yet in other cultures it is considered normal. Many in western cultures feel so strongly about this point and its damage to women that we attempt to promulgate our standards of normalcy onto other cultures. We find it difficult to understand why there is resistance to the common sense notion that mutilating women is wrong. While this extreme example make it easier for us to say what is right and what is wrong (according to our perspective), sometimes the choices we have to make are not so starkly clear. Tattoos were once considered abnormal and something that happened only to sailors when they got drunk. Our society however has changed the definition of what is normal when it comes to self-mutilation and tattoos as well as other body piercing are now much more commonly accepted. In Slack, I examine the pressures within society to conform to the norm and follow the crowd.
There is another aspect to normal that affects organizations and needs to be examined. Does normal infer mediocrity? If you are like every other organization out there, an also ran, how do you standout form the crowd, how do you differentiate your product or service? So in the case of organizational performance is it good to be abnormal, at the high end of the distribution? I would argue so, but I would also argue that no organization has the resources, the time, energy, people, money etc., to be an abnormally high performer in all aspect of their performance, and that one critical strategic issue for organizations to deal with is to decide which aspects of their performance do they need to be abnormal upon, or if we want to be politically correct, world-class performers upon. Additionally, being at the high end of the distribution on certain aspects of performance negates the ability to be high on other aspects of performance. For instance, if the organization is to be the most customer focused, highest quality, most innovative, it is quite difficult to be the lowest cost provider. It is in essence a contradiction, to be the lowest cost you would need to sacrifice services in order to meet that goal, sacrifices that would be sure to affect your ability to be the most customer focused, most innovative and highest quality.
But there is a special case here, a situation that if the organization can create will cause substantial rewards to accrue and that is the control of the definition of normalcy. What is defined as normal is a moving target. What was once abnormal can be shifted in perception and made part of the mainstream, part of normalcy. If an organization that is operating in a normal fashion can successful implement a transformational change, redefining not only itself but the definition of what is normal from a product or process perspective it can control the market for that service or product. FedEx redefined the speed at which a package can be delivered and controlled the market, it created a new definition of normal, the standard by which everyone else gets judged. I no longer had to wait 2-3 days for my package; I could get it there overnight. Apple created a new definition of the normal way in which we bought and listened to music. Ford created a new definition of affordability of the automobile, creating a new normal regarding who could own a car. The Japanese car companies can along much later and redefined what “normal” quality levels were. We are not simply talking about innovation here. We are talking about the kind of innovation that redefines a market that causes a shift in definition, the definition of what is normal. Unfortunately, many companies are not up to the challenge, but for those who can change that definition, establishing a new normal, the potential rewards are enormous.
On the last full day of our family vacation my daughter was interested in going horse back riding. We got a recommendation from the concierge where we were staying and off we went. My wife had taken my daughter down the Alpine Slide the day before while I stayed with Grandma so it was my turn to have an experience with my seven year old.
I may have been on a horse once before in my life, but somehow it seems very vague and distant and my only conclusion is that it must have been a memory that I have suppressed. I wonder what happened on that ride that I have no memory of it. So I have to say it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we lined up on the porch of the horse ranch and the wrangler who was going to lead our expedition started asking each of us in our group of 11, who were going to ride, about our riding experience. When they asked my daughter, I jumped in and said that it was to be her first time on a horse, as I wanted to make sure she got a nice gentle steed. He asked her if she wanted to ride by herself or if she wanted to have someone lead her horse. She wanted to ride by herself, she answered without hesitation. The wrangler then turned to me and asked about my riding experience. I did not want to brag about my vast riding experience as I wanted a gentle horse as well, so I indicated to him that I had seen a horse once – in a picture, and if they would just tell me where to insert the ignition key, I am sure I would be just fine. The wrangler, with a bit of a grin on his face, looked at me as though he had something in mind. “Ronnie for the sweet youngster”, he yelled into the barn, “and Red Cloud for her dad”.
Ronnie was the first to emerge from the barn. He looked like a nice, gentle horse, with a small saddle just the right size for a seven year old. My daughter jumped onto a stump that was there to give a boost up, and then in a blink of an eye she was sitting in the cat bird’s seat, with a big grin mixed in with a small look of concern on her face. Red Cloud came next. He was big, about the size of my Grand Cherokee, and about the same color too. I am sure I had a look of concern on my face as I thought about how in the world I was going to get on this animal. I wondered if I could just lead him on our walk. I am pretty sure I saw cowboys doing that in the movies, where in a tender moment of bonding they walked by their horses heads, having conversations about where the next watering hole might be. But no, I was expected to perch on top. Without any shame, I decided to use the stump as well to help me get on the horse, as I wanted to make sure I avoided a groin injury, in case the Yankees called on me to pitch in the next home game.
I swung my leg over and was surprised to find myself in the saddle rather then on the ground on the other side of the horse. Well that wasn’t too bad, how hard could the rest be? Red Cloud turned his head to look and see who was sitting on his back. He gave me a look that seemed to indicate that he would appreciate it if I lost a few pounds. I scratched his neck in an effort to generate some good will. Red Cloud seemed to sense that I was a neophyte and decided to immediately take advantage. He took a few steps towards a mare that was standing by the fence. I thought that this other horse must be a friend and he was just going over to say hello. Like a couple of old neighbors who hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks, he was going over to chat about how their various rides had progressed. “Hey, how’s it going?” Red Cloud would whinny. “I’ve got this chubby New Yorker on my back; you have any interesting riders lately?” And she would whinny back, “No, not really”. One of the wranglers, jerked me back to reality, “Keep Red Cloud away from that other horse” she shouted, “he is just trying to get close to her and is annoying her. See how her ears are pinned back? She is about to throw him a kick.” “Just great”, I thought, I am going to be sitting on Red Cloud as he tries to mate with another horse. I had to ask what I should do to get Red Cloud to move away from his potential bride and she yelled over, “Pull on the reins!” After a few futile attempts a wrangler came over and led my horse away. So far so good, we were still in the yard, not having begun our ride yet.
They lined us up; I was immediately behind my daughter who was beginning to look more and more comfortable in the saddle. We were second and third in line immediately after our guide and off we went. We took what looked to be a narrow dirt path up the side of the hill and began climbing towards the ridgeline of the mountain range we were on. I was expecting a nice tour for about an hour, but we began to climb through thickets and some wooden terrain. My daughter was now getting very comfortable, bouncing around in her saddle, yelling back to me to watch out for this obstacle or that one.
Red Cloud meanwhile had some other things on his mind – like eating grass at every opportunity. He knew who was boss and he knew that it wasn’t me. I began though to get the hang of rein management; how to hold the reins in order to get the horse to do what you wanted. Sometimes it worked.
I noticed something. The path we were on was significantly worn; in fact it was more like a rut. At some points the rut was 4 inches or so below the rest of the ground and at other points the rut was a good 12 inches below ground level. I thought to myself, “How many times have horses traveled this same path with tourists on their back?” I asked the guide at the head of the line if the horses could do the tour without any guide, given how many times they must have made the same trek. He answer affirmatively, he thought that most of the horses if turned loose would follow the script. Humm…I’ve got a horse so used to routine that it does not need a guide. What would happen if something out of the ordinary happened, how would the horse respond? Should I put it to the test?
Just then we broke out of the brush and found ourselves on the top of the ridgeline and were treated to expansive views of spectacular wide open plains with a stream meandering through, about 1000 feet or so below us. The guide yelled back that this was the National Elk Refuge that we were now seeing, winter home to 5,000 or so elk. The view was out of this world with abundant wild flowers around us, but the path was very narrow and should the horse fall, or just decide to brush me off, it was going to be a long way down. I decided it was time to come to some kind of understanding with Red Cloud. I indicated to him that if he kept me on his back and did not stumble on any of the rocks or tree roots that were in our path that I would not pull up on the reins the next time he wanted to stop for some grass. I thought that it was the least I could do for a horse that now had my life in his hands or on his hoofs as the case may be. Red Cloud turned his neck to look at me as I talked to him and I am pretty sure that I saw him wink in the affirmative. A Faustian bargain had been reached.
We continued on our spectacular tour and I began to think about how organizations can get into ruts, running on autopilot in an extremely routine fashion. Along the way they might try to mate or merge with other organizations, they need sustenance in the form of products or services; both delivered to customers and received from suppliers. But even when operating in this fashion they have the potential of delivering some really spectacular results. But what happens when the non-routine occurs, I had to still test that out.
The wrangler at the end of our column broke me out of my thoughts, when he yelled out “Pull up on Red Clouds reins! Don’t let him eat grass! He is slowing down the whole group”. I apologized to Red Cloud and pulled him away from the grass he was contentedly munching upon as we continued upon our journey. Meanwhile, my daughter was having the time of her life, conducting a non-stop conversation with the guide regarding a whole host of nature related questions, including what animals he had seen on this trail. He indicated to her that in addition to sage grouse, elk, and antelope, that just the other day he had seen a moose. A moose! He now had my full attention.
We eventually ended up back at the ranch and as we entered the yard, the horses that we thought we were now confidently in control of, decided that they would wander to what ever point of interest there was for them. Once they got out of their rut they exhibited a good deal of free expression. Luckily for me the mare was no where in sight. We got back into our car, after purchasing the obligatory horse riding photos, and my daughter stated very firmly that she could live here.