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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Cows, Chickens and Structure

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There is a farm not too far from me. Well, to call it a farm might be a bit generous. I think it is more like a tax ploy as agricultural land is taxed at a lower rate here then land zoned for other uses. This old estate is one of the most gorgeous farms you have ever seen with stone barns and manicured fields and upon its gently rolling pastureland there exists a herd of black cows, very well groomed, that look like they haven’t done a day of work in their lives. Or have they? It reminds me of a story I came across a while ago that went something like this.

Say you come upon this rural scene. Upon the grasses growing on the gently rolling hills of a farm there is a large herd of grazing dairy cows slowly meandering around, occasionally standing under the shade of the magnificent  trees scattered over the hillside, wandering over to get a drink at times from a water trough and then proceeding back to grazing upon the wondrously lush grasses. All is peaceful and the cows seem very content slowly chewing on their cud, letting the day pass them by. 

Standing by the edge of this field leaning on a fence you spy the owner of the farm. You met him at the local feed store and recognize him as the guy who told you he had moved out of the city looking to bring his management expertise to what he described as the inefficient upstate farms. You see him standing there gazing at the cows dressed in a nice business suit, balancing a laptop on the top edge of the fence, but instead of being soothed by this bucolic scene he looks agitated. You approach a little closer and can hear him yelling at the cows that are seemingly oblivious to his rant, “You lazy good for nothing cows, get to work or I’ll have you butchered!” The cows simply continue to chew. The farmer upon seeing you watching walks over and begins to describe his frustrations. “These dairy cows,” he said, “they don’t do anything all day, just stand around eating and drinking. I carefully measure their performance by how much milk they produce, and so to give them the opportunity to show some discretionary effort, to give more milk, I hook them up to the milking machine for long periods of time, but they won’t produce any extra milk. They are lazy slackers. Unless they start producing some more milk so I can increase my margins I will turn them into beef patties.”

The notion this farmer has of course is that all you have to do to get additional production from a dairy cow is to have them hooked up to a milking machine for a longer period of time. After all, that is how you get milk out of them, so in his mind that is when they are being productive. This new farmer views the time the cows spend in the field eating and chewing their cud, preparing to be milked, as wasteful. He does not understand that shouting at the cows, threatening to turn them into sausages will not cause them to produce milk any faster, that actually milking them is only one part of the larger production process. People, who are working hard, but perhaps just thinking, might be giving extraordinary amounts of discretionary effort while appearing to be doing nothing. On the other hand sometimes when someone appears to be doing nothing, that is exactly what they are doing and that is where the chickens come in.

Chickens are not known to be the brightest of animals and should you draw a line with a piece of chalk and then take a chicken and press their beaks to the line for a few minutes, then slowly remove your hands, the chicken will become fixated on the line and will not move from that position. There is no thinking going on, no insights being contemplated just a chicken which can’t seem to disengage from the activity of staring at the line or so to speak the chicken can’t seem to operate outside of its pre-programmed responses. When set upon this task the chicken sticks to it, regardless of whether it makes any sense. As this story goes, an employee too can become fixated upon a line – the company line. Writing in “The Giant Hairball”, Gordon Mackenzie describes the chicken staring at the line as similar to an employee becoming fixated upon the company line. “This is our history. This is our philosophy. These are our policy. These are our procedures. These are our politics. This is simply the way we are.” Pretty soon the employee can’t operate any other way for they have, like the chicken, become fixated. The uniqueness, the potential that each employee brings to their job is at risk potentially of becoming lost. Don’t lose your uniqueness; don’t become fixated upon a line.

Humans form a complex social web as they interact in organizations. There are formal organizational structures to which they adhere and each organization also has informal structures, which has been described as the way that the work actually gets done. Every organization has a formal structure and because the formal structure can’t capture all the nuances with respect to what it takes to accomplish complex tasks an informal structure arises as well. The work that was done on this concept goes back to the late 1800’s and is collectively called the Hawthorne studies. Almost everyone has heard of the Hawthorne studies as the placebo effect – that simply changing something in the workplace can increase productivity because of worker expectations that the change is being made to enhance performance, so simply because of that expectation, it does. But the Hawthorne series of experiments went on for quite a period of time and examined various things in the work environment including informal organizational structures.

According to these extended Hawthorne Studies these informal structures, from a positive perspective, help the organization accomplish its tasks but from a negative perspective informal structures created power cliques that had the following characteristics:

  • Clique membership/ostracism acted as a form of social control
  • Clique membership forced people to conform to group desires
  • Clique members would all stick together on stories, and would fudge reports so as to achieve uniform results
  • Cliques established norms regarding output, treatment of supervisor, reciprocity and other interpersonal relations
  • Clique members resisted change – especially those changes that challenged their informal power structures.

Their overall conclusion: “formal organizations are not as formal as they may seem, even if they are bureaucracies. When human beings interact with each other over a long period of time, they develop a social structure that is only partly based on the formal organizational structure. The informal social structure has as much to do with the way the organization runs as does the formal structure. The informal social structure may or may not work to the detriment of the organization.

Every organization has structure, both formal and informal, one is not necessarily better or worse than the other, but rather both are natural outcomes of how humans as social animals function. However, being overly dependent on a formal structure, and not recognizing the influence of the informal structure or depending on the informal structure while not acknowledging the strengths and shortcomings of your formal structure are both recipes for falling short of your desired organizational goals.

A chicken will stare at a line not because of any social influences or informal structures pressuring them into this rather bizarre behavior, but because of internal limitations and cows can be putting forth mighty efforts at milk production while appearing to do nothing. The informal and formal structures can also either produce rather bizarre behavior, which can internally limit the potential of the organization or if well understood by the organization, these structures, while potentially appearing to do nothing can be greatly enhancing the potential of the organization.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 29, 2010 at 4:30 pm

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