Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Energizing Against Mediocrity in Organizations

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Organizations are companies, producing products and services for sale, but they can also be volunteer fire departments, bridge clubs, reading circles, religious organizations, or schools. Let’s define an organization as any group of people who get together for the accomplishment of shared goals that are better and more easily accomplished together than by any individual alone. And let’s define mediocrity as being average or similar to other organizations. With some rare exceptions, the last thing an organization wants is to have its products or services to be viewed as hum drum, just like anyone else’s.

Imagine you are looking into a room with a divider down the middle. On one side of the divider there are 2000 molecules of oxygen and on the other side there are none. There is a hole in the divider allowing the oxygen molecules from one side of the room to move to the other, if in their random bouncing around they perchance pass through the opening. At the beginning of this thought experiment, when all of the oxygen is on one side of the room, you have a greater degree of order than when some of it begins to diffuse to the other side. How many ways are there (various combinations of molecules) to have all of the oxygen molecules on one side of the room while the other side has none? The answer is that there is only one way to accomplish that. How many ways are there to have one oxygen molecule on one side of the room and the other 1999 on the other? The answer is 2000, because any one of the 2000 molecules could be the one to move the other side of the room. Now, how many ways are there to have 2 oxygen molecules on one side of the room and 1998 on the other? The answer jumps to 1,999,000, because there are that many combinations of any 2 molecules that can theoretically move to the other side of the room.

So if you think of perfection as having all the oxygen molecules on one side of the room, neat and tidy (a state of low entropy), there is only one way to accomplish that, and as you move away from perfection (a higher state of entropy) the number of ways to accomplish oxygen diffusion rises very rapidly, in fact it rises logarithmically. If you think of the eventual end state of this thought experiment, that the oxygen gas will equalize itself across the entire room with 1000 molecules on each side of the divider, the  number of ways to accomplish that jumps to 2 x 10600 (that is the number 20 with 600 zeros after it).  There are a huge number of different pathways than can be taken to reach equilibrium of oxygen distribution within the room.

Across many physical processes, the world we live upon, over time, tends to move from rare conditions, for instance, all the molecules of oxygen on one side of the room, which can be accomplished only one way, to much more common conditions, i.e. the number of ways in which the oxygen can diffuse itself across the room. And we should all count ourselves as very lucky that the world works this way, or you could be walking around in your neighborhood and all of a sudden find yourself in an area lacking in oxygen. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? “Honey, why are you so blue?” “I was out jogging and ran into an area with no oxygen.”

In many respects the results above reflect the probability of one type of event, equilibrium of the oxygen distribution across the room (very likely to happen over time), against the probably of another event, that all of the oxygen would be on one side of the room (not impossible, but very unlikely). While the number of possibilities for the combinations of which molecules will end up on one side of the room or another is huge, the likelihood of any one molecule, over time, ending up on one side of the room or another is 50/50. The difference in difficulty in determining which combination of 1000 molecules will end up on one side of the room vs. the other, compared to predicting the likelihood of any one molecule ending up on one side or the other is not dissimilar to challenges organizations face in creating effective and efficient organizations as they try to maximize current performance while building future organizational potential.

Organizations may start out with somewhat “rare” conditions, a unique combination of people, or new technology, or a hot product, etc. but as they grow and bring in more and more people there will be a natural tendency for the organization to reflect the characteristics of the population external to the organization, as well as being faced with all of the same problems that commonly occur to other organizations. As an example, technologies and products can be copied over time, becoming a dispersed capability available to many organizations, or someone else can achieve the same result with another technology.

This effect will cause an organization to run the risk of becoming quite average or mediocre if they are not constantly injecting new energy into critical processes. As more and more individuals diffuse into the organization, the natural tendency will be for the internal conditions within the organization to reflect, by and large, the external environment from which they came. If they do not, it means that there is some form of systematic bias at work, which can work in the organizations favor or against the organization depending on the type of bias.

And as organizations need to pick and choose in which activities they should invest and spend resources, which will have the most impact on organizational performance, the natural tendency is that they will begin to look more and more like other large organizations, especially as they continue to grow in size. Since organizations tend to operate within similar environments they all tend to have very many similar issues and struggles. In cases like this benchmarking to look like other organizations, even those others most admired, is an attempt to strive for mediocrity.

Think for instance of a selection procedure that is designed to determine whom to hire. Say there is one opening within an organization and 100 people apply for the job. In order to determine which “one” to hire you put the candidates through a rigorous screen. The research on the screen indicates that higher scores on the screen tend to result in hiring people with better job performance. The operative word here is “tend”. Just as you cannot predict for certain which side of the room a particular molecule will end up upon, you cannot predict with absolute certainty which “one” out of the 100 applicants will be the most successful over the long term in the job, or even if the one selected will actually fail. The best that the research can do is to give you better odds at success. That improvement in odds provided by the selection procedure is when you are taking one person at a time, think of the added complexity if you were to try to determine the best person of the 100, to interact with the others already within the organization, and not just against the job. Which combination of 1000 potential employees will result in an optimum solution? The odds of successfully achieving that perfect combination are quite low, but luckily while there may only be one perfect combination there are thousands or perhaps millions of somewhat less than perfect, but very acceptable solutions to be had.

An organization’s ability to improve those odds leading to exceptional performance, depends on how well and how thoughtfully practices and procedures have been put into place that resist the natural tendency to simply become like everyone else, expending the necessary energy to create the rare conditions that makes them exceptional. Beating the odds requires the constant expenditure of organizational and individual energy.

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

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