Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Somewhere else on the continuum

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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.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 17, 2009 at 5:47 am

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