Archive for September 2013
There is an old joke that goes something like this: A union leader is addressing the crowd at a union meeting. From the podium he begins talking, “We have agreed on a new deal with management. We will no longer work five days a week.” The crowd roars in approval. “We will finish work at 3:00 pm, not 4:00 pm.” The crowd roars again. “We will start work at 9:00 am, not 7:00 am.” Once again the crowd roars. “We shall have a 150% pay raise”. The noise level was deafening. “We will work only on Wednesdays.” There was then a silence that immediately engulfed the room. You could hear a pin drop. Then from the back of the crowd a voice asks, “Every Wednesday?”
In spite of jokes like this that make the rounds, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear. The vast majority of workers want to do a good job at work.
© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
On September 6th at 11:27 pm eastern, NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) took off from Wallops Island, Virginia. Being in New York, I was not sure how much we could actually see of the launch, but the night was crystal clear so the family stayed up late, and we all went out looking for a spot with a view of the southeastern horizon. We weren’t sure exactly where to look, but a few seconds after the scheduled launch we saw a bright red spot moving rapidly from the south to the eastern horizon. I was not sure what we were seeing but after a few seconds it became clear that we were watching NASA’s rocket heading to the moon. My 13 year old was so excited that she was bouncing off the walls and the beds when we came back into the house. Her first rocket launch and it was pretty far away, but nevertheless it was able to instill a sense of awe and excitement in her. Thank you NASA.
The next day I headed to the internet to determine if we were accurate in what we thought we saw. Sure enough there were lots of people who had snapped photos with images that looked exactly like what we saw posted on NASA’s website. I read a little about the launch and I was suddenly quite thrilled myself. The launch vehicle used for this lunar mission was a Minotaur V+ rocket. This was the very first time that kind of rocket was used, its maiden voyage. The newness of the rocket is not what thrilled me, what thrilled me was its history. The Minotaur V+ rocket is a repurposed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that was originally designed to carry nuclear weapons. Instead of raining destruction down upon the earth, as this rocket was intended, it was being used for the peaceful exploration of the moon. I was reminded of a small knot that I used to carry around in my stomach, and that knot I now found had lost its hold over me.
I was a cold-war baby. Born in 1959, I clearly remember bomb drills in elementary school where we went into the hallways, away from the windows and ducked our heads (like that was really going to help). Sometimes we went into the school basement and assembled behind an enormous pile of gravel, or huddled under our wooden desks. Flimsy wooden desks, as we all knew, where very effective shields against nuclear blasts. All the kids knew that the reason we were practicing these activities was because suddenly, without any warning, nuclear bombs on the tips of missiles could come down on top of our heads. It was a very scary time to be a kid. During that NASA launch on September 6th I was unknowingly watching one of my worst childhood fears being expelled into space. It felt great when I realized that. I think it is terrific that a weapon that was capable of such great destruction had been put to a positive use – it was repurposed.
I began thinking about how you would go about repurposing an organization in order to reinvigorate it, to give it a new, fresh, inspiring purpose. Not that all organizations are necessarily designed for great destruction as an ICBM, but sometimes organizations do need to reinvent themselves, to repurpose themselves, to give them additional life. How could it start?
There is a notion out there called organization ambidexterity. In people, ambidexterity is defined as being capable with both your left and right hands. In the world of organizational science it has come to mean a dual focus on short-term performance as well as longer term capability. It is the notion of Organizational Vitality.
Without short-term performance organizations will cease to exist. If you don’t supply a product or service that external customers want, if your internal business process are broken, or if you can’t attract the talent you need to conduct your business your likelihood of survival for the long-term is dim. Alternatively, if your sole focus in on long-term potential, building capacity and capability for the future, that future might never be realized.
There is a balance that must be struck between the short and long-term. Without short-term cash flow and profits the longer term may be out of reach, and without long-term capability building, short-term performance is a dead end. Yet the short and long-term are in conflict. If your desire is to have maximum short-term performance you might be reluctant to invest in research & development, or the trial and error of new processes and procedures, or having extra or slack resources available to explore options. If you want to maximize short-term performance you run an extremely lean and tight ship with no extras. But as you run leaner and leaner, at some point you are cutting away and diminishing the organization’s future. And if you build in too many extra resources your profits and your ability to stay in business, to realize your future, will evaporate. A balance must be struck.
What many organizations don’t realize is that the information that they need to determine that balance exists, most typically, right within the organization itself. All you need to know is how to extract it. A typical employee survey focuses on the employee as a specimen, as an object to be studied, to be understood. Are the employees engaged? Are they willing to recommend us as a place to work? Are they proud to be here? These are typical questions used when you want to understand how an employee feels. But what if you want to know what an employee thinks? More specifically, what they think about the functioning, the ambidextrous balance that the business needs to achieve?
A fresh approach to employee surveys is to treat the employees as a resource, which if asked the right questions, within the right framework, can shed light on whether the ambidexterity balance is shifting too far in one direction or the other. Questions on an employee survey for instance should be tied to the organization’s strategy. If the organization is going to emphasize customer focus as a differentiator, ask about customer focus. And look at the results not only for those whose responsibility is customer facing, but look at your top performing customer facing folks and compare them to the others. What do they think about your ability to serve your customers?
By methodically choosing items that are linked to the long-term strategy of the organization and short-term performance needs and then examining the strengths and short-comings, as your employees see them, you begin to build the picture of where you are in creating a Vital, ambidextrously balanced organization.
There has been much coverage in the news media about “profiling”, especially in NYC during this mayoral primary campaign. Much of it has been critical of Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC police department which utilizes a stop-and-frisk program in an attempt to have a positive impact on crime in the city. Each candidate during this primary season is staking out a pro- or con- position on stop-and-frisk. A recent federal court ruling has stated that the NYC program violates people’s rights against unreasonable search. “The judge ruled that police officers have for years been systematically stopping innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing” (August 12, 2013, New York Times). The stop-and-frisk program is said to be based on profiling, that people who fit certain characteristics or profiles are picked out by the police department and “selected” for participation in the program. The huge number of people who are stopped suggests that the program is in need of an overhaul. It appears to be not so much an exercise in profiling as it is an exercise in stopping a large number of people and seeing what turns up, and apparently a federal judge agrees. But as a consequence of this and other bad publicity over the years profiling has been cast as evil.
If profiling is evil, that means we are all evil. Profiling is a built-in feature of being human. Each of us use profiling every single day to assist with quickly categorizing the vast quantities of information which impinge upon us and to help us make decisions that range from very simple to quite complex. Whether an application of profiling is good or evil is based upon how it is used and the characteristics utilized in creating the profile. Sigmund Freud for instance stated, “When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’ and you are accustomed to making that distinction with unhesitating certainty.” You make that distinction with unhesitating certainty because of a profile you carry around regarding which body shapes, facial characteristics, etc. are classified as female and which as male. Taken in total those features and characteristics represent a profile of maleness and femaleness.
Freud’s view of profiling maleness and femaleness tends towards physical characteristics, but there are other categories, such as demographics and behaviors which are also used to build profiles. Levitt and Dubner in Super Freakonomics describe a profile that was created in the UK to help pick out potential Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Now, if you are trying to pick out potential Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, chances are that they won’t have a name like Buffy Willis, or Bruce Fleming, and in fact the research shows that Muslim names predominate among Islamic terrorists (no surprise), just as Irish names predominated among Irish terrorists who were fighting the British previously.
That particular characteristic, name type, is very superficial, and can be very misleading as a profiling tool as it tends to sweep into its net a huge number of false positives, those with Muslim names who are not terrorists (the vast majority). The researcher that Dubner and Levitt cite ended up creating a terrorist profile with predictive ability (being able to pick a terrorist out of the crowd) by adding in addition to demographic characteristics a behavioral characteristic which they cannot disclose. At the risk of getting a little technical here, they state that most of the profile variables being used to predict who is a potential terrorists and who is not tended to be binary (you either have that characteristic or you don’t), and a shortcoming of binary variables is that they don’t have much statistical variance (the degree to which over a large number of people you will get a wide-range of responses). When you don’t have much statistical variance you lose predictive power. The behavioral variable that enabled more accurate profiling of terrorists was on a continuum with higher levels of this particular behavior being much more common among those with terrorist tendencies. This gradation of responses, from lower being less likely to be a terrorist to higher levels being increasing likely has a much greater amount of variance and hence predictive power.
On a more mundane level, one research project we conducted for a high technology firm sought to define what profile would be seen between those sales people who made the President’s Club by exceeding their beginning of the year quota by a given amount, vs. those sales people who fell short. By far, the best differentiator was not gender or tenure or some other demographic variable, but rather a behavioral characteristic, the degree to which the sales person sold in a collaborative fashion. Selling in a collaborative fashion is not binary but rather exists along a continuum and those sales people with higher and higher amounts of this particular characteristic, in this company’s environment, were more successful. The ability to sell collaboratively has all sorts of selection, training, performance management, technology and support systems implications which are then potentially able to be fine-tuned by a client company.
Here is another example of how behavioral variables on a continuum are better than binary one’s commonly used in profiling. If you have ever passed through airport security in the USA vs. Israel you will notice a distinct difference in how passengers are screened. In the USA you are essentially screened for objects, metal objects or liquids that you are not supposed to carry into the airline gate area. You may be asked one or two questions about whether someone has given you anything to carry for them or where have your bags been, but the screening process is about objects (either you have them or you don’t – a binary variable) and not about behaviors. In Israel the focus of the screen is about your behaviors, why are you there, where are you going, what were you doing, tell me about your family, do you speak Hebrew, where did you learn it, etc. The screening process is about your behaviors, past, present and future which are scored and very hard to fabricate out of whole cloth. The risk score determines if the person needs follow-up additional screening. Israel’s security screening track record is exemplary.
With all the commotion about profiling these days it is clearly obvious while some would desire for profiling to just go away – that any kind of profiling is inherently bad. But in reality we profile constantly and it is not going to go away. Profiles you have in your head of store characteristics, which may determine where you will shop, according to the type, quantity, quality and costs of the goods are common. Which of your neighbors will end up being your close friends based upon profiles of shared interests and characteristics happens all the time. A doctor diagnoses a patient by examining and logically thinking through profiles of symptoms commonly seen in various illnesses. The list goes on and on. The issues around profiling are not about it being inherently good or evil, but rather how we choose to implemented it and the validity we are able to ascribe to it in day-to-day practice.
© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com