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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for May 2010

Ordinary Things

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As we seek to understand extraordinary events we would be well served by examining what has become ordinary.

Ordinary things provide comfort, for as they become familiar parts of our lives they can help us achieve a sense of consistency, a sense of control, a sense of predictability. We are creatures of habit, even if for some the habit is to never do the same thing twice. We seek out similar experiences to ones we have had in the past. Some seek the rush of adrenaline from the thrill of trying new things and others the comfort of unchanging routine. For many the morning cup of coffee, tea or juice served just so, creates a sense of being on track, of not having to deal with something out of the ordinary first thing in the morning. We settle into our routines. But we can’t afford to become complacent about our routines.  Complacency can lead to obsolescence, to overlooking risk, to not seeing the world as it truly is right before your eyes.

Sometimes when you look at the people on the edges of society, people who operate beyond the limits of what most of us would consider ordinary behavior, the edge itself becomes a magnifying glass, providing insights that we might normally overlook. For instance, the swindler who is caught, on one of those exposé TV shows, in a complex web of lies while trying to scam people, sees the behavior as acceptable because “everyone lies”. To the scam artist it has become ordinary to cheat, to lie, and to steal. It has become part of the normal way of conducting oneself.  To change someone’s behavior you must change what is accepted as “ordinary”.

The work environment is no different, and what we consider to be ordinary becomes part of the normal course of events, the way we conduct ourselves and our business. For a manager, as an example, an ordinary thing may involve shaving that budget just a few percent each year. It becomes normal to cut on an annual basis in an attempt to become more efficient and to increase bottom-line performance. And while each cut by itself may seem minimal, over the course of time they may add up to an extraordinary draconian situation. It would not surprise me at all if the managers responsible for the Deep Water Horizon drilling platform felt those pressures to cut just a little bit here and there to increase efficiency, to bring that well in on-time and under budget. Cutting simply becomes part of the normal operating routine, it becomes ordinary. Yet not pushing one’s performance can lead to complacency and the risk of a competitor coming along and making you and your organization obsolete. Leveling the playing field by putting into place minimum standards of “ordinary” is necessary to break that cycle.

But there is a balance that must be struck. That balance is between maximizing current performance (operating most efficiently) while at the same time creating future potential for success (operating in a fashion that leads to other and new opportunity). If the balance swings too far one way or the other the organization and all of it constituencies are at risk. An organization that monitors itself with respect to that balance, adjusting and correcting imbalances that occur can achieve higher levels of performance.

Ordinary things are found in and can help interpret extraordinary circumstances. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated an inventory was conducted of the contents of his pockets. You might wonder what the 16th president of the United States, the gifted leader who gave us the Gettysburg address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, and the continuance of the United States itself, had in his pockets at the time of his death. What things would this man, whose achievements are viewed as extraordinary carry around on his person? The inventory produced two pairs of spectacles and a lens polisher, a pocketknife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a five-dollar Confederate note (a souvenir from the recently visited and captured Confederate capital) and nine newspaper clippings. He was carrying ordinary things expecting nothing more than a pleasant evening at the theater.

On the other hand, a very ordinary 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee with 133,000 miles on it just sold for $26,437.50, a sum far greater than book value. This ordinary vehicle commands such a price because it was once the personal car of the 44th president of the United States, Barak Obama. It is an ordinary car to which an extraordinary value is ascribed due to its provenance and the person who paid that amount certainly expects the car to at a minimum hold its value if not to increase in value substantially. I have to add here that I too drive a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee with only 89,000 miles on it, with good rubber, and I would accept somewhat less than $26,000 for it.

Listening to music, a walk in the park, a ride on the train, cutting the grass, taking the family out for dinner, are all examples of what some would say are quite ordinary behavior. But what we define as ordinary not only changes over time but is affected by changing standards, by geography, by economic conditions, by culture and status among other factors. My child is lucky enough to get vaccinated against a whole host of childhood diseases, vaccinations that other children in other parts of the world will forego. What is ordinary for her would be extraordinary for others. Some things that you might view as extraordinary, if it is happening to you, say removal of a gall bladder, or the repair of a hernia, are quite ordinary for the surgeon who performs similar operations almost daily. Sometimes it is very difficult to see how an extraordinary event for yourself, like a graduation, a promotion, a marriage, the birth of a child, a diagnosis of cancer, can be quite ordinary for observers to that event from a more dispassionate vantage point.

And if you’ll indulge me, if we take it to a higher plane, while we may all be ordinary, each and every one of us nothing more than flesh and blood, we are all extraordinary in that we are all, each and every one of us, made up of star stuff. Each and every atom in our bodies first came into being in the heart of a star and was released from that heart upon the death of the star in an explosive nova. The early universe you see contained only lighter elements such as helium and hydrogen. Other heavier elements of which we consist (e.g. carbon, oxygen, iron) began to be synthesized only after the first generation of stars coalesced and ignited the fusion process at their cores. That stellar fusing process created the very atoms of our being. When those first generation stars exploded the heavier elements were released, and made available for the earth to form and for life itself to come into being. While we at times may feel quite ordinary, our origins are clearly extraordinary.

Extraordinary events are oftentimes surrounded and caused by what has become standard or ordinary in terms of how people behave. And different people have differing definitions of what is ordinary. Finding out what that definition consists of can lead to insights into their behavior and consequent events. In some corners, corruption and bribery have become ordinary, in other corners the desire to squeeze out a bit more profit drives what is accepted as ordinary behavior, and in other corners it is standard for people to go way above and beyond what others would consider ordinary to be in service of those who have less than what they do. We do have the ability to change the definition of ordinary, each and every one of us. We do it all the time. All we have to do is something extraordinary and then make it routine.

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

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Schlemiel is a Yiddish phrase that has been picked up by English speakers and is often used to describe an unlucky or perhaps a somewhat foolhardy person whose endeavors, no matter how hard they try, never seem to work out.   It is someone who would re-invent the wheel using a square template, all the while wondering why the wheel did not run smoothly, over and over and over.

The origins of the word, an old legend has it, came from an interesting tale. There was this young man who lived in the town of Enns, Austria, who decided to leave his young wife to study in a distant city. After he had been gone for 11 months his wife gave birth to a healthy young baby. The townspeople were all atwitter (yes, social networking existed back then), gossiping over the incident. The wise men of the village gathered and stated that due to her unquestioned piety, the event should not be regarded as suspicious, but rather as a case of delayed conception. The wisdom of the crowd prevailed over the ruling of the wise men for you see the name of the young man who left his wife to study abroad was Schlemiel (Shlumiel – alternative spelling).

Reading this story got me thinking about people today who make statements, often times over and over and over, which are simply not supported by the facts or even of a logical nature, but since they provide a point of view that others (at least some others), are looking for to support their pet theories or personal beliefs, they are stated and restated. I will limit myself to the HR/OD space, no matter how badly I want to expand out to other examples. Please, if you care to, join in and add to the list:

  • Pay is not a motivator of employee behavior or a driver of satisfaction
    • Corollary: Money doesn’t buy happiness
  • You have to pay CEO’s a lot in order to motivate them
  • This younger generation has different motivators at work, for instance they don’t care about job security
  • It is good to keep things somewhat chaotic at work, keeps people on their toes
  • Older workers are set in their ways and have a hard time learning new things
  • Older workers are settled in and don’t care as much about promotions or recognition as younger workers
  • Technical employees, like engineers are often more cynical at work
  • Organizations make decisions
  • Our selection system works really well, all of our employees are above average
  • Job enrichment leads to a higher level of job satisfaction
    • Corollary: People in repetitive jobs find the work boring

Whenever I hear such things I resist the urge to yell out “schlemiel” or worse. But I am also sure that others have opinions different than mine.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 15, 2010 at 12:54 pm

The Science of Momentary Organizational Intelligence

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Humans have had an enormous impact on this planet in a very short period of time. In fact humans as a species have come a long way in a relative blink of an eye. Homo sapiens sapiens (humans) first appeared in the fossil record about 200,000 years ago. To put that into perspective if you compact the age of the planet into about a day’s worth of time, 24 hours, humans have been on this planet for only about the last 3.4 seconds of its existence. If you think of the time since we have been organized into societies, some of the first organizations, rather than just in hunter-gatherer mode, that time period ends up being just short of about 2 tenths of a second relative to the day-long age of the earth. The appearance of many modern conveniences, such as electricity, that we now take for granted, would not show up until about .0025 of a second ago. But what an impact we as a species have been able to make in that last fraction of a fraction of a second. While that impact has made many of our lives immeasurably more comfortable, from a planetary perspective, at best, that impact could be described as creating a mixed or perhaps somewhat dismal picture.

There is a concerted effort out there to find life on other planets. So far the search has yielded no signs of intelligent life elsewhere. You have to wonder how difficult that task is likely to be if you question whether we as a species will ever make it to see a full second of existence, relative to the day-long age of the earth. In order to do that we would have to keep going as we are for roughly another 60,000 years or about 6 times the interval since we as a species began to form societies. If other “intelligent” forms of life take the path we have, they too could have enormous impacts on their respective planets in a relative blink of a planetary existence, but from within our own flash of modernity, the last tiniest fraction of a second, where we even have the capabilities to look for other intelligent life, we may be searching for little more than other flashes of momentary intelligence.

Finding the proverbial needle in the haystack is an extremely simple task by comparison. We not only have to be looking at the right place, we have to be looking at the relative right fraction of a fraction of a second if the development paths of other life-forms resemble our own. Remember as we gaze into space we are covering not only distance but time as well, gazing out is looking back. As we examine other planets at varying distances from us we are looking back to different time periods in their evolution. And while all this may sound a bit corny, even with the long-odds, I have to admit I am a big fan of SETI or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. If we can find other intelligent life-forms, more mature than our own, and of longer duration, that would represent the success of “intelligence”, meaning that intelligent species as they arise are not doomed to extinction as they wantonly exploit the resources of their respective home worlds. Finding other successful life forms might point to a path forward for our own long-term success.  

In the relative fraction of a second since we have emerged as societies we have shaped virtually every aspect of our existence to better suit us. While we may not have tamed nature, we have certainly harnessed it for our benefit. For instance, there is current concern about genetic engineering of plants and animals. As though if we change the makeup of plants and animals, as nature herself has not done, we will expose ourselves to potential future horrors. Well, for a very long time now there has not been a piece of food that you put in your mouth that we as a species have not already genetically engineered. Have you ever seen what the original versions of corn, tomatoes, potatoes, or wheat looked like? By today’s standard they were barely edible. Over time by selecting for traits that made plants and animals more attractive and useful to us, we have genetically morphed virtually all of the ones we exploit today. You want to go back to eating wild onions, perhaps chasing boars through the forest? Did you have a hamburger for dinner last night? That cow that it came from never existed in its current form as a creation of nature. Did you enjoy a crisp apple or some really good sweet corn recently? We created them both by manipulating their genes. Even before we knew about genes we were manipulating them to bring better harvests, more flavor, and better characteristics to our food. The potential to insert genes that add vitamins to common foodstuffs in the developing world represents a potential great leap forward in helping to relieve human suffering and is an opportunity we should not miss. Especially one we should not miss due to ill informed decision making.

Despite all the progress we have made in our tiniest of fractions of a second, we still carry with us a large number of superstitious beliefs and primal fears. Maybe our technology and abilities have surpassed our social structures and thought patterns. One study carried out by the Pew Research Center (Science News, April 10th, 2010) of 895 experts on the impact of the web on our futures, comes to the conclusion that while the general consensus is that the technology will continue to advance, there is a feeling that from a societal standpoint we are not progressing fast enough to deal with the new technology. “At the same time, there is worry that humans and their institutions will not adapt as well as they might under these circumstances. We’re slow to adjust, and the technologies themselves are introducing so many new elements to life that people will potentially have a hard time adjusting to that.” Not only are we slow to adjust from a society perspective we are slow to progress in our decision making methods. Let me share a few examples.

We often bypass evidence based decision-making to hang our fates on folk wisdom, personal conviction, simple belief or to throw our lot in with charlatans selling snake oil. (Sometimes charlatans truly believe what they peddle, and while that may remove the label of charlatan, they are still selling snake oil). Have you heard of cleansing? There is no evidence that cleansing products actually do anything useful or that the body even needs to be cleansed. (I have to laugh out loud when I see the ads on TV about the buildup of material in my digestive track just waiting to be flushed out. Other then my wife telling me I am “full of it” there is no evidence that I actually am.) Quite the contrary to cleansing, there is ample evidence that a diet rich in roughage and fiber allows your digestive organs to perform at their best. What about the notion that your organs would function better if you gave them a rest? Would you give your heart a rest or perhaps your lungs for a week or two? Of course not. In fact a systematic exercise program is one way to achieve a healthier heart and yet it seems that sometimes people decide to rest their brains (also an organ that has been shown to benefit from exercise) as they consider what beliefs they should embrace.

Personal experience also plays a part. But remember personal experience is often anecdotal, gut reaction or based on an n=1 design. Not the way to assure good judgment is utilized in decision making. My gut tells me that there have been an unusually large numbers of earthquakes over the last 6-12 months or so, right? Actually, if you look at the record, there have been exactly the anticipated numbers of earthquakes, at the anticipated magnitudes, as there have been historically. What has happened is that there have been a higher number of earthquakes hitting populated areas which draws more attention, incurs more damage and fatalities and makes it seem like there are more earthquakes. Our thinking tends to look for patterns and we quickly make judgments which we then defend.

One article in the NY Times (May 2, 2010) documented the losing reputational battle that high fructose corn syrup is fighting, with one side claiming it as a natural product, while the other claims that its chemical transformation from corn starch to corn syrup results in unhealthy properties. I stumbled at two points in the article, one when someone from a corn syrup group indicated that they concentrate on consumer preference and not the science behind the syrup and the other when a social media demonizer of corn syrup said that science had simply not yet figured out the experiments to prove his point of view. Both points of view as they are stated are seriously deficient in data, but the current science seems to imply that corn syrup is as bad for you as cane sugar, no worse, no better.

Why are we as consumers not utilizing more science in our decision making on what to do with or put inside of our bodies? It is wonderful to lose yourself in the concepts of the “mysteries” of the natural world, that there are secrets that we don’t know about just waiting to be discovered. One of the reasons Avatar was such a hit movie was because of the wondrous and mysterious natural world that was depicted. There are those who eagerly chase or follow people who state that they have uncovered one of those mysteries that will benefit your life. How many of you who are reading this take any kind of herbal supplement? Many do. And while some herbal supplements contain chemicals that can have significant effects on the body, have you ever looked for real experimental data on whether that herbal supplement actually does you any good?  

Yes, many of our original medicines came from the natural world, aspirin from willow, digitalis from foxglove (which I grow in my garden since I find that the deer leave it alone), and penicillin from mold. Scientific knowledge is a moving target and our knowledge continually improves as our science improves. Consider this treatment for Bronchitis from the 1899 Merck Manual: “Cupping, four to six dry cups over the back often give very great relief, and if pulmonary congestion appears very great, wet cups should be placed instead, and 8 to 10 oz. of blood withdrawn from adult.” That treatment for Bronchitis represented the beliefs of the day, but I wouldn’t let a practitioner of those out-dated beliefs near me with a 10-foot pole. That history of scientific imperfection opens the door to charlatans who claim that science does not have all the answers. And you know what? It doesn’t, at least not yet. But I’ll take the incomplete answers of today’s scientists over the hype of marketers, politicians and those with vested interests any day.    

The business world and more broadly all kinds of organizations which we humans have created have had their fair share of misguided principles, fads, magic bullets as well as worthwhile concepts applied to them. Some are based on scientific principles, others on ideas that are simply thought up as marketing differentiators. And while some are nothing more than a means to sell a few books and consulting services, others contain kernels of worthwhile elements, but are often viewed as the solutions to be applied in all situations, as though the bloodletting treatment for bronchitis should be used whatever the ill. Having a bagful of solutions in search of problems is no way to make organizations or societies truly improve. Remember the saying, if the tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Over the last few decades the concepts tried out in organizations have included leaderless groups, chaos, one-minute manager, management by walking around, informal structures, total quality management, learning organizations, management by objective, matrix management and business process re-engineering. Which are real and useful, which are fads? Which ones should be applied to what kinds of problems?

The answer to those questions are not necessarily straightforward. As organizations feel increasingly greater pressure to compete in a tough environment, to make their quarterly targets they can fall under the sway of the answer of the moment and the resultant behavior is not always positive. It may be time to look at what has really worked longer-term within successful organizations, and to get to the heart of the matter scientifically. Not that we should discard new concepts and methodologies of organizational management that come along, but rather than simply grasping we should employ a moment of organizational intelligence and choose wisely and scientifically among our options.    

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 2, 2010 at 6:47 pm

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