Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Repurposing the Organization

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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.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

September 12, 2013 at 5:03 pm

One Response

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  1. Talk about turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks!

    Michael Katz

    September 13, 2013 at 10:07 am


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