Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for November 2nd, 2009

The Mysterious Organization

with one comment

[tweetmeme source=”jeffreysaltzman”]

“Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.”  – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Those of us conducting organizational development or improvement efforts are making the assumption that organizations can change. Otherwise why would we bother and why would organizations bother to try and improve their performance? If the behavior of organizations was foreordained, collecting organizational, behavioral, or cultural information and rolling it out to the management team and workforce with our elaborate planning and improvement mechanisms would be a complete waste of time. It is implicit in the assumptions we make about our work that organizations should be able to improve, to change for the better if given the right tools to help them along. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

An organization is nothing more than a unifying concept that allows for common purpose and shared activity among its members. In order for the organization to be successful, membership in the organization has to be perceived as having benefits or no one would bother to join. Some business oriented organizations are so successful at creating common purpose and coordinating member activity that they go “public” which allows non-members to participate in the organization by the proxy of their investment. Yet organizations are essentially non-existent. Have you ever talked to an organization? No, you have not. You talk to the people who are part of the organization, who reside within the organization. Has your car ever been repaired by a car dealer organization, or an appliance in your house repaired by a home repair service organization? No they have not. They are repaired by the service technicians, the people who are part of, or representatives of those organizations. When sick and in the hospital, is your care, and your ability to get well dependent on the medical organization in which you are placing your trust or the people who work there? In addition to the successful selection and development of the best medical staff possible, you are hoping that organizational polices, practices and procedure have been put into place that will lead to a uniformly high standard of care, regardless of the staff person who is giving it, but those policies, practices and procedures were not derived by the organization itself, they were derived by the people who make up the organization.

The people that make up the organization, when it comes right down to it, are the only real asset that the organization has. Yes organizations can have buildings and equipment, patents and processes, but how was all that created in the first place? It was created by the efforts of the people of the organization. Let’s call people the “primary asset”, the asset by which all other assets are created.

So when we make the assumption that organizations can change, what we are really saying is that people can change. People can increase their knowledge, they can change the way they get work done, they can change the way they interact with others along with a host of other attributes. Our goal when we are attempting organizational change is to change the actions, the thoughts or beliefs of the people who reside within those organizations.  People can change the way an organization functions by changing the policies, practices and procedures that other members of the organizations follow, and it is people, organizational members who must take the initiative to create the change, for the organization itself is incapable of doing that. I am not splitting hairs here, for there is a critical distinction between those who are waiting for an organization to “act” vs. those who realize that it is the people within the organization that must “act”. Getting the people within the organization to realize that they must act is half the battle of organizational change.

There is a subtle difference though that must be drawn between what people in an organization can do to help institute change and what others within the organization must do to allow that or facilitate the change. While everyone in an organization can act like a leader and can take the initiative to improve aspects of organizational functioning, for instance challenging dysfunctional dogma, not everyone in the organization has equal ability to access the necessary resources (funds, people, space etc.) needed to make meaningful large scale changes. As you interact with organizations, you interact not with the organization itself, the organization as abstraction; you interact with the people who make up the organization. Yet if the people within the organization are not given the proper tools, equipment, messages, etc, if they are not enabled to perform their respective jobs, your interaction with the organization will likely be less than satisfactory regardless of the quality of the people you are interacting with.

Selection of the best and the brightest people is critical to the overall health of an organization as is the appropriate goal setting for those who are organizational members. Irrespective of whether that organization is a manufacturing organization, a services organization, a research organization or one of the branches of the US government where we elect organization members into their positions, we need to select the best and brightest, those capable of learning and adapting to changing circumstance, those not tied to failing dogma and those who believe in openness and transparency, a lack of mystery. We then need to make use of their ability to adapt to changing conditions by setting appropriate organizational goals and each member needs to be aware of how they can contribute to those goals. Each member as well needs to know if their actions are in fact viewed as appropriate by the organizational leadership in helping the organization to achieve its goals.

An organization, including a governmental organization, is nothing more than an amalgamation of people, bringing to bear their respective talents and skills for common and shared purpose. Organizations do not make decisions. Organizations do not provide recognition or feedback. Organizations do not hire or fire. Organizations do not provide equipment and resources. People do, people who happen to reside within the organizational structure. I think we all intuitively know this however that concept can make some people uncomfortable, people who prefer the anonymity or mystery that the word and concept “organization” can confer.

Some people draw their influence, their power not from their personal knowledge or ability but from the “mysterious” organization. Organizations can seem all powerful, omnipotent, the creator of the rules by which others must live, yet organizations are nothing more than people. Often times knowing little about an organization can create an aura of mysteriousness or an illusion of power or invulnerability surrounding the organization. Think of the CIA, the National Security Administration, or the FBI. Creating mystery around the organization’s structure, about just who is making what decisions evokes a sense of “decisions being made from up on high” from omnipotent knowledgeable beings, beings that are in reality only as capable as many others.

What are some of the consequences of allowing the “mysteriousness” of the organization to continue, to have a lack of transparency in the day-to-day functioning of the organization? When an organization is sheathed in a veil of mystery, created by a lack of transparency, upon the slightest tremor in performance, the slightest crack in the shield of mystery protecting the organization (which is only a matter of time) the illusion of invulnerability will vanish and the consequential reactions of customers, of shareholders, of employees, will be severe. The mysteries of our financial institutions come to mind with most of us not even coming close to understanding what they did, how they earned money. Those organizations and their actions were veiled not so much in secrecy but in mystery generated by complication. Think of Lehman, Bear Sterns, AIG, etc.

Warren Buffet, the head of Berkshire Hathaway and a fairly successful investor (that is a purposeful understatement) in a recent PBS interview described how if he can’t get his head around what a company actually does, how they earn their money, he walks away from that opportunity or divests from it. He is looking for a lack of mystery, an easily understood simplicity in the business model and complete transparency. There are lessons to be learned there, lessons that apply not only to which organizations to invest in, but lessons on how people within organizations should be managed.

Moving from the organizational level down to the individual level, the behavior of people who hide behind the mysterious organization can exhibit some very troubling patterns. If we start at an extreme there has been found to be correlations between tribal groups that disguise themselves with masks, mud, war paint etc. and the consequent amount of cruelty and torture that they apply to their war victims. They are hiding behind the anonymity of their warring organization and the consequent is a higher degree of cruelty than those who go to war with less anonymity. You may be familiar with the caricature of the sheriff, after catching you for speeding, approaches your car with impenetrable sunglasses that hide their eyes. This creates a sense of mysteriousness about them and makes them less of an individual and more of a uniform that is part of the “organization”. This sense of detachment on their part creates circumstances allowing for behavior that is less personal and more anonymous and detached, and perhaps less friendly.

Hiding behind organizational anonymity is utilized by various levels and positions within the organization by members who are looking for the organization to provide them position power, a higher level of authority than what they would get on their own, or to obfuscate the responsibility and accountability for various decisions and/or behaviors. But the mysterious organization is taking a tremendous risk that eventually the majority of its customers, its employees and shareholders will become alienated with its way of conducting itself and they will abandon it when given an opportunity.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV:

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 2, 2009 at 5:03 pm

%d bloggers like this: