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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Points of View

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“We have to believe in free-will. We’ve got no choice.”  – Isaac Bashevis Singer

A family of 4 deer crossed in front of my car this morning. I had to slow down and proceed with caution as the road on both sides was densely forested and there always seems to be a straggler or two who cross once you think you can safely proceed. My daughter riding in the back seat offered an observation. “How come deer always wait for a car to come along before crossing the road in front of it?”  Seems like a perfectly reasonable statement from a seven year old, who while precocious (of course) still struggles in seeing the world from perspectives other than her own point of view (don’t we all).

I explained that the deer cross the road when they desire and don’t actually wait for a car to pass by in order to jump in front of it – it only seems that way. However, to an observer who regularly passes by in a car, who only observes the deer crossing when they drive by, it seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation that deer cross the road only upon viewing a car, which creates an uncontrollable urge on their part to run in front of it.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it does it make a sound? Can a sound exist if there is no one there to hear it? If you think that existence is human centric then the answer is not as clear then if you believe that humans are merely part of the story of what is going on around us. The tree will create the same vibration through space whether there is any measuring device, i.e. someone’s ears, nearby. (We can get deeper into this, making assumptions about an event happening but nothing, absolutely nothing, no mechanism, no organism being there to perceive the event.)

It also reminds me of Schrodinger’s Cat – an example used to illustrate the point in the world of quantum mechanics, that has a cat in a box and upon opening the box to examine the state of the cat (alive or dead) you actually change the state of the cat. In other words the very act of measuring something can cause its properties to change.

For the purists in the survey world we could argue that when you ask someone about “Overall Satisfaction with their Organization” you run the risk of actually changing the way that they might respond. This might be especially true if you first ask about other aspects of organizational life which can get them thinking about issues that they had not been previously thinking about. On the other hand the pragmatist in me says that if you ask the question routinely in the same fashion at the same point in the questionnaire it is not a big issue. Work done on item placement on surveys shows that it can have an impact, but rather minimal in my opinion, when you are looking for big organizational elephants to tackle rather than nuanced differences.   

What about other aspects of life, organizational or otherwise? Do we routinely use the same causality logic, driven from the point of view of the observer, as when deer cross the road? I have an inkling that many of us do, even when we know better. I am pretty sure for instance, that the road repair crews have discussions in the morning to determine which way I will be driving that day before setting out their cones and construction equipment. I am also sure that toll booth operators and parking lot attendants upon seeing me get into their line, decide to slow down the flow of cars in my lane.  And I am 100% certain that if there are multiple lines at an highway exit, ticket window or at airport security that the longest slowest moving line is the one I am supposed to be in. At this point I have just given up and automatically move towards that line.  (That last one may have a basis in reality, if you think about normal distributions and the likelihood that you need to go where the majority of other people need to go.)

Upon starting work with a new client, a client that I may never have previously known much about or thought of, I start to see their logos and products everywhere I look. They are more cognizant to me personally rather than actually having more advertising, products or services out there.

Does the point of view of the observer influence their interpretation of events? Of course it does. High ranking managers, especially in larger organizations, may not get the opportunity to observe organizational events the same way as others in the organization experience them. They tend to be shielded from that, (if you were cynical you would say that they are being managed by their subordinates) which may cause them to come to the conclusion that there organization is running in a fashion incongruent with reality.  One reason why organizational surveys are as popular as they have been over the years is because they can help cut through the shielding if done properly. Senior managements are often captivated during a feedback session which offers a point of view which may be rare for them to experience.

The notion of free will revolves around the concept of whether people (and deer) have freedom of choice in picking which decisions they will make in life or whether our outcomes, our fates have been predetermined by some external force. But the choices we make are inextricably bound up with our interpretations of events – our point of view. The implementation of free will then is then potentially also driven by the fact that two people who observe the same event may interpret the event differently, and thereby take different courses of action, depending on their point of view which varies their interpretation of the event.  A single interpretation of an event is not likely from all observers because of the unique point of view of the various observers. All you have to do is to listen to the various “news” shows that are popular today to realize how varied the “neutral” interpretation of events can be.  

People within organizations and those helping them interpret events and other data flows that impinge upon the organization have a challenge. In order to make the best possible decisions for the organization the challenge is to openly examine events from multiple points of view and to come to the realization that the decisions made will be interpreted differently depending on the point of view of the observer. You may come to what you view as the optimum decision but realize it will be interpreted divergently and hence will need additional explanation and transparency to be understandable from the viewpoint of others. Wait…I think I just saw a deer cross the road.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 11, 2009 at 7:32 am

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