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Respect and Dignity

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Asking an employee population whether they are treated with respect and dignity has been part of employee surveys for a long time. Those two words are so often used in conjunction with one another that they have become joined at the hip as a unified concept not only in the world of surveys but also in our day-to-day conceptual thinking as well. Respect and Dignity. While some argue that it is a double barreled concept, it would be really impossible to treat someone with dignity, but without respect, and likewise if you are being respectful, dignity would, it would seem by necessity, tag along. As a gestalt, respect and dignity are two sides of the same coin.

I will deal with the dignity side of the coin here. The concept of dignity has a long history and interesting origins. As a constitutional right, dignity today is often defined as a “person’s freedom to write their own life story”. [i] Freedom to create one’s life story requires freedom from oppression, and has within that notion both rights and obligations. One right is of control over oneself and one’s body and an obligation would be to take responsibility for your behaviors and actions – for your future.

Maintaining dignity in the world of work, using that definition, will be a balancing act. If dignity is about the right to choose, as one enters an employment situation one is giving up at least some dignity, in that you are working not necessarily to your own ends, on your own initiatives, but on organizationally defined goals and often on an organizationally defined schedule.

While the emphasis and enshrinement of dignity in the modern age largely was the result of the horrific abuses of human dignity in WWII, and today the only constitution that defines human dignity as an unassailable absolute right is the German Constitution in reaction to those abuses, the sense that humans have and should be treated with dignity is an ancient precept. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers spent time with the notions of dignity, assigning human’s dignity because of their ability to think and choose. Dignity in Buddhism is based on the idea that humans can choose a path leading to self-perfection and hence are dignified[ii]. Judaism and Christianity believe that mankind was made in god’s image and because of that, mankind, as a reflection of god’s image has dignity. There are religions that do not believe that mankind was created in god’s image, but because mankind was created by god, and given the ability to think, we have a dignified (rank) special place. In Islam for instance because mankind is a creation of god a person should not be harmed, for if you harm another human you are harming god. The major religions of the world do not have a corner on defining and rationalizing the need for dignity. Ubuntu for instance is a Bantu term that is often translated as “humanity towards others”, treating others with a humanness or dignity with which they deserve.

Needless to say the concepts and definitions surrounding human dignity have been around almost as long as mankind’s abuses of that dignity. Dignity is a social term – a societal definition. You are treated with or without dignity only in relation to how others in society are treated. If you are enslaved your dignity is measured against those that are free. If you have no access to clean water, food, shelter, health care etc. your dignity in your society is measure against those that do have access to those items. If you were a solitary individual on an island the concept of dignity is meaningless, as there is no one else to treat you with or without dignity, its meaning and your relative standing being solely derived from the society in which you are embedded. Organizations are nothing more than encapsulated mini-societies.

From an organizational measurement and performance perspective that is where the concept of dignity gets interesting. People in organizations are rarely if ever treated the same. And it would be easy to argue that some of the differences are there for motivational purposes, to give people something to strive for – more money, a promotion, access to training and developmental experiences. As a relational variable when you ask someone “are you treated with respect and dignity” their response is in relation to how they see others being treated both within and external (those referent points can be teased out) to the organization. And across a large number of people you will in all likelihood receive a range of responses, if the question is asked the right way and your scale is sensitive. You can take that range of responses and throw them against absolute business metrics such as turnover, customer satisfaction (depending on how measured can be relative or absolute), sales success etc. to determine which of the metrics are impacted by the relative treatment of people. And inferentially within your organization you can determine which specific policies, practices and processes are enhancing people’s sense of dignity, which are decreasing it and which simply have no bearing on the matter. And ultimately you can determine how to best impact people’s sense of being treated with respect and dignity, a human fundamental, and the financial benefit or cost of doing so.

Note: New blog postings from me have been few and far between this year. The reason is that I have been writing a book, co-authored with Scott Brooks, titled “Creating the Vital Organization; Balancing Short-term Profits with Long-term Success.” It is due out in mid-2016 by Palgrave.

[i] 2015, Barak, A. Human Dignity: The Constitutional Value and the Constitutional Right, Cambridge Press.

[ii] Soka Gakki International website. 12/09/2015, http://www.sgi.org/about-us/buddhism-in-daily-life/buddhism-and-human-dignity.html

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 9, 2015 at 11:53 am

Seatbelts on Motorcycles (and other survey questions)

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We were heading out to dinner on a tree-lined country road that runs by a reservoir. One lane in each direction, double yellow line down the middle. All of a sudden a motorcycle passed me by at likely twice the speed limit. I was left wondering why seatbelts aren’t required on motorcycles. At least after the motorcycle crashes you would know where to find the body. It would still be attached to the motorcycle rather than being flung somewhere into the woods.

Seatbelts are a good thing. They have saved countless lives when used properly in cars. If you however, assume that what works well in cars should be applied to all types of vehicles on our roadways you will likely be disappointed with the track record of seatbelts on saving the lives of motorcycle riders. They would simply not have the same beneficial effect.

The same is true when it comes to employee survey design. There are all sorts of various types of organizations out there, following all different type of differentiating strategies. So if all those organizations are trying to differentiate themselves, trying their best to distinguish themselves from their competition, why would so many people’s knee jerk reaction be to use the same survey questions that every other organization is using? To do exactly the opposite in terms of survey design what the organization’s goals are in terms of performance?

If we mindlessly apply that logic to other aspects of our lives, the next thing you know when you go to the doctor complaining of chest pains, you will be on the receiving end of a proctology exam. After all proctology exams are pretty good at detecting colon cancer, so they must also work for chest pains. “Doctor, doctor, the pain is in my chest. What are you doing?” “Well I had this tool handy, so I thought I would use it”.

Employee surveys should not be tools in search of problems. But rather they should be tailored to the specific needs of each organization and their unique strategy.       

© 2014 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

August 26, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Measuring Organizational Culture

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When someone tells me that they want to measure organizational culture I get just a little nervous, as I am pretty sure however I respond there is a good chance that person might have something else, other than what I say, on their mind. If you ask 10 people who say they want to measure organizational culture what they mean, you will likely get 10 different answers. Organizational culture in the words of one of my esteemed colleagues is “often a big, sloppy, wet concept that means different things to different people.  It usually requires longer, maybe fuzzier surveys more akin to personality tests than aptitude tests.”

People who push generic cultural assessments are in general taking a very specific point of view, usually their own world view, and pushing it to the exclusion of what might actually be in the best interest of the client or organization. It is of course easy to fall into the trap of a “quick” cultural assessment. It sounds simple, and as though it will give insight on some organizational issues, but in my experience these quick and easy assessments are often a waste of time and money. They make good marketing fodder, the magic silver bullet that can solve your issues, but little else.

Here for instance are a series of words that could be used to describe an organization’s culture. How would you go about picking and choosing which of these concepts to include in your assessment of an organization’s “culture”?

Aggressive Family Oriented/Personal Striving
Innovative Customer Focused Bottom-line focused
Learning Diverse/Homogenous Meritocracy
Sales Driven Cooperative Silo’ed
Safety Oriented Quality Focused Resistant to change
Respectful Communicative Secretive
Traditional Ethical Integrity
Bureaucratic Sustainable Oriented Entrepreneurial
Authoritarian Hierarchical Collaborative
Shoestring Efficient/Streamlined Transparent
Resourceful Prideful Career Oriented
Partnering Effective Fun
Irreverent Paradigm Changing “Get-it-Done”
Courteous Problem Solving Empowering
Standardized Engaging Hubris

 

Clearly the list can go on and on, but the point is that there are about as many words to describe an organization’s culture as there are organizations. Some people have models regarding which aspects of organizational culture are important, and I have more than a few myself. However, those that push one model as “the answer” are giving the complexities of organizational life and the business world short shrift.

So how might you go about deciding which aspects of culture are important to measure? Let me answer by describing a situation several of my clients have had over the years.

Most of the time, after an employee survey, we are asked to present the findings to the executive team. However, every once in a while, we simply provide reports which summaries the findings and the internal team takes it from there.  On several occasions the internal team has stated to me that they get only a very brief time slot to present the findings, the culmination of a pretty big effort. I ask them to show me the presentation and invariably the presentation is organized around themes like training, and communications, and decision-making. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but those categories are not what senior managers think about day-to-day. What do they think about? Their business strategy. So what if you design the organization’s survey and take the resultant information and categorize it into what is enabling the execution of the business strategy and what is preventing the full implementation of the strategy, perhaps by each strategic topic? Usually you’ll find that you get a whole lot more attention and the time of senior managers.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 8, 2014 at 7:38 am

Legislating Morality

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Fifty years ago, in 1964, the US Civil Rights Act came into being, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The purpose of the law was to make discrimination based on race, religion, color, national origin, and gender illegal. Other protected classes were added over time, such as age in 1967. Beyond simply making discrimination illegal the legislation was attempting a feat of social engineering, changing behavior. And while one could argue that tremendous strides have been made, make no mistake about it, there is still plenty of discrimination going on today.

But questions arise for those of us who work in the space of behaviors and attitudes. Can attitudes and opinions, can thought patterns and morality be created by legislation?  Does legislation and prosecution for violations of that legislation create morality or only an illusion of morality? And if people are behaving according to moral principles, but in their hearts feel differently, do we care?

While we could argue endlessly whose standards of morality, or which cultures and norms we will accept as “moral”, putting all that aside for a moment, the answer from a social engineering perspective is very clearly that legislation can change behaviors and over time those behavior changes will result in attitudinal shifts. In other words legislation does have the power to affect behaviors, and partly though the power of cognitive dissonance, partly through the power of modeling others in the community, over time thought patterns can be altered. Perhaps not for everyone, and not in every instance, but changing behaviors can lead to attitudinal shifts in a large population.

The attempt to legislate behavior is nothing new, as there were many ancient legal codes aimed at instructing people how to live their lives in an attempt to instill order in society. One well known early attempt at legislating morality occurred under the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi about 3800 years ago. The Code of Hammurabi consisted of 282 laws by which people were to live their lives. Hammurabi’s code was the source of the saying “an eye for an eye”. (“If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”) And it is likely the earliest instance of medical reimbursement legislation. (“If a physician make a large incision with an operating knife and cure it, or if he open a tumor (over the eye) with an operating knife, and saves the eye, he shall receive ten shekels in money”). But medical malpractice carried stiff penalties under Hammurabi. (“If a physician make a large incision with the operating knife, and kill him, or open a tumor with the operating knife, and cut out the eye, his hands shall be cut off”).

An even older set of laws, originating about 300 years before Hammurabi, was created by the king of Ur and called the code of Ur-Nammu. Some of those very ancient laws we would recognize today (“If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed”). And some would be somewhat foreign to us today (“If a man is accused of sorcery he must undergo ordeal by water; if he is proven innocent, his accuser must pay 3 shekels”).

And almost 1000 years later on Moses brought down a set of laws from Mt. Sinai which also was aimed at describing to people how they were expected to behave and live their lives, a moral code (e.g. “You shall not murder”).

While there were certainly differences among these legal codes, there were also some very interesting similarities. For instance look across these 3 sets of moral codes, originating thousands of years apart regarding what they have to say about bearing false witness.

  • Ur-Nammu (4100 years ago) – “If a man appeared as a witness, and was shown to be a perjurer, he must pay fifteen shekels of silver.”
  • Hammurabi (3800 years ago) – “If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.”
  • Moses (approx. 3000 years ago) – “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
  • And today in the USA (18 U.S. Code § 1621) perjury is still a crime – “…is guilty of perjury and shall, except as otherwise expressly provided by law, be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

Apparently bearing false witness has been an on-going problem since the dawn of civilization or there would have been no need to call it out specifically in each of these moral codes.

More recently the case for legislating morality can be seen with the advent of laws in favor of marriage equality and other equal benefits for the LGBTQ community. In this particular case it seems that the attitudes of the population in general were ahead, and perhaps still are ahead of those in various legislative bodies in the USA. There are of course segments of the population who vehemently oppose equal rights, just as there were those who supported Jim Crow laws in the south. What will likely happen to that group? As LGBTQ rights become more widespread, and people/states are held accountable for violation of those rights, the act of behaving in a fashion supportive of those rights will be seen as:

  • normal – people will want to be similar, including in attitudes) to the vast majority of people they are surrounded by (Paraphrasing Tversky & Kahneman 1974, “People will maintain a belief in a position when surround by a community of like-minded believers”).

And again, potentially not everyone’s beliefs will positively shift in every instance (even among those suffering from cognitive dissonance), but across the larger population continuing shifts in attitudes could be measured.

As an aside, in the world of survey research, once we have reached a 51% response rate, in order to drive additional responses, we use this notion to our advantage, by sending out reminders along the lines of, “the majority of people have completed the survey, don’t miss this opportunity to voice your thoughts”). It works.

Today the US military is struggling with the issue of sexual harassment in its ranks. The military code (e.g. article 93 – regarding cruelty and maltreatment) has various statutes in place by which personnel can face court martial trails for sexual harassment offenses. But the rules have been rarely enforced with harsh measures, especially for those with higher rank. Can the military legislate attitudinal shifts among service members? Can they eliminate sexual harassment by simply telling people “don’t do it”? That is a necessary step. And certainly enforcement must be more uniform across the military and the legislation must be seen as having some teeth. But the military must also build standards of behavior that become “normal” and which don’t include sexual harassment behaviors. Once the behaviors are in place attitudes can shift. If all you do is work on attitudes but the old behavioral standards are still there, the attitudes shifts will not “take”.

Legislating morality is possible, but over the long term true shifts in attitudes can only happen if they are supported by the corresponding behaviors.

© 2014 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Fact(ish)

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“ish” seems to be gaining in popularity. At least it appears that way to me when I occasionally hear my high schooler chatting with her friends. Cool, groovy, far-out, rad, are out and “ish” seems to be in, along with “literally”. Not that ish is new.  “ish” has, in the distant past of parental youth, meant “approximately”. “When would you like dinner?” “Seven-ish”, has been around for a long time. But “ish” is now being attached to all sorts of words to mean “sort of” or is even being used as a standalone word. “Did you get your homework done?” “Yes-ish”.  “How did today go at school?” “ish.” If I respond with “Do you literally mean ish?” I am the recipient of the rolling eyeball “you are so out of touch” look. “ish”, one is left wondering exactly what that means, though the basic gist is certainly there.

In science and organizational decision-making we try to be as “un-ish” as we possibly can be. We want to manage, make decisions, prove our point, develop our facts by relying on incontrovertible proof, on evidence that the course of action we select or the points we are trying to prove simply cannot be denied. Except that is not how humans often draw conclusions. In one study that a friend of mine did he tracked, among HR professionals, the proportion of their “best outcome” decisions vs. their “worst outcome” decisions and each contained a “leap-of-faith”. Meaning that even after all the facts were assembled, all the evidence in, a leap-of-faith was required to make a decision. Mostly because it is impossible to have complete knowledge, so in the absence of omniscience, a leap-of-faith is needed to get the job done, or you would forever be analyzing and never taking action.

In research, one study builds on another. A follow-up study may contradict the original, but over a period of time, slowly the preponderance of evidence builds, pointing the way to the best course of action, or uncovering a “truth” by which the world operates. This process can take time. Remember for decades cigarette makers denied that smoking cigarettes caused any health issues and they commissioned their own studies to prove that point. This last week CVS, a major drug store chain, announced that it would stop selling cigarettes and the only analysis to be found was whether the approximately 2 billion dollars in lost business would be made-up by a positive shift in CVS’s reputation. No one, at least in the news reports I saw, refuted the science anymore that cigarettes are bad for your health.

Making sense of the world though is quite different from understanding the world, and when people’s understanding is incomplete or based on a shaky foundation, their interpretations of what is going on can go astray. The Greeks for instance knew and it made perfect sense to them that when there was thunder and lightning that it was caused by Zeus, the king of their gods. Knowing what we now know, it may be difficult to understand how the ancient Greeks really felt about that. But it was not some cute little story that they used at bed time for the children, while the adults winked at each other. This is what they truly believed, that when it thundered Zeus was speaking. To them this interpretation of the world made sense, for it explained events as they experienced them, even though from our perspective they did not understand the way the world really worked. Today we talk about these Greek beliefs as mythology. One can’t help but wonder which of today’s beliefs will be thought of as mythology a thousand or so years from now.

Each human develops their own mythology of the way the world works and on April 22nd I am going to be conducting a complimentary webinar on “People at Work – Myths vs. Realities”. Feel free to register and join me for what is hopefully going to be an interesting-ish conversation.

Also on February 18th, Scott Brooks and I will be conducting a complimentary webinar on “Why Employee Engagement is not Strategic” and we both would love to see you there.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 9, 2014 at 11:50 am

Social Contracts and Social Fabrics

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A few weeks ago I was asked to reflect on and present at a conference on what 30 years of studying people at work have taught me about the topics of Social Contracts and Social Fabric. To be honest at first I wasn’t exactly sure where to start, but the conference was being put on by some old friends and it was in Geneva, Switzerland so I decided to participate. For this topic I began thinking about all the employee survey data I have collected and examined over the years (thousands of organizations) and the various types of organizational uses that this data has been put. Importantly, the conference organizers were asking about my opinions and even though my opinions are informed by data, they wanted me to go slightly further and inject some beliefs that have arisen from the research, even if I did not have hard data on the topic. I ended up having much more material then I could possibly present in the time allotted so in the end I had to shorten what I spoke about, but I wanted to present some highlights here.

There are a lot of misconceptions about people at work. Some of those misconceptions center on what people want out of the work environment. Other misconceptions center on differences that people have about work that are driven by generation, gender, geography or ethnicity.  And if you make your living looking for differences between people, differences can be found. However, what people have in common is much more substantial and important and we would be better off focusing on our commonalities than our differences. Most, if not all of the differences that are cited in the popular press is the product of confounding variables (such as environmental situation, economic conditions or life stage) that are rarely taken into account when reporting on people at work. Some samples of the myths that have arisen include:

  • Younger people have different drivers of what they want out of a job than older people;
  • Older workers are more loyal to an organization;
  • Older people don’t want to learn new things – especially technologically oriented things;
  • Everyone is unhappy about their pay;
  • People with a lot of work to do will be less positive about work than someone with little to do;
  • Chinese, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Thai, or other 3rd world workers don’t mind the working conditions and hours to which they are subject.

The list can go on and on, but in general these kinds of statements are usually given by people who have no data to back them up, or the data they do have is suspect. Whenever I talk about this topic I am reminded of a scene I came upon in Indonesia numerous times. In Jakarta there are sewage swimmers, workers who, wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts, immerse themselves in the open sewers to remove blockages that could prevent the sewage from flowing. I have never had an opportunity to study these workers to ask them their opinions, but when I have seen them, I am convinced that their concerns and what they want out of a work environment, the fundamentals, would be little different than the concerns or desires that you or I have. So how can they submit themselves to conditions so foul that it will most likely shorten their lives?

If you define organizations broadly, and I do, fundamentally, people join organizations to achieve goals that they can’t do alone. And people are members of many, many kinds of organizations. Everything from where you work, to where you study, to volunteer organizations you belong to, to the city or state you live in, your country, your immediate and extended family, any organized religious group to which you belong, they can all be thought of as organizations. If you add up all the different kinds of organizations to which we all belong, and the rules by which they operate, you have a society. The society in which we live is an amalgamation of all the organizations which are operating in that space. This notion is nothing new and Socrates uses this kind of argument in explaining to Crito why he must accept the death penalty that has been meted out. He explains that society had created conditions that allowed Crito to be born, to live a good live, to achieve. And when Crito violated the rules of that society, as a society member, he must accept its punishment rather than flee.

Over the last 30 years it is pretty clear that on the fundamentals, what people want from the organizations in which they work there has been very little or no change at all. Show me someone, anyone, anywhere in the world who doesn’t want to be treated with respect and dignity at work. Or someone who doesn’t want to feel like they receive fair compensation for effort expended. Or someone who doesn’t feel that the time they spend in the organization will hopefully lead to a more positive future either for themselves or their children. The differences that are often cited between generations or other demographically defined groups of people (e.g. men vs. women, minority vs. non-minority), such as expected time to promotion, safety, or desire for job security, have almost nothing to do with who the workers are as people and everything to do with the economic and social conditions in which they are imbedded. It is also true that every characteristic, such as desire for job security, or expected time to promotion, or risk tolerance will express itself as a distribution due to individual differences, but those individual differences are not driven by the traditional demographic characteristics to which they are often attributed.  In general, within any of the traditional demographic groups you can find a distribution, a spread of the expression of a characteristic (e.g. risk tolerance) that will be greater than the differences between demographic groups.

Due to this, over the long-term, the end state of globalization and the social contracts in which it is imbedded will not be driven by governments or by the multi-national corporations. The end state of globalization will be driven by what people want and what people want is pretty much the same thing everywhere. Now, there are individuals, governments and corporations who take advantage of discrepancies that exist in social contracts to pursue their own agendas, but over time these social contracts will evolve and the ability to take advantage of the discrepancies in social contracts will diminish.

So for instance, a corporation or other organization, in its perfect world, would want to be able to do whatever it wants without concern of oversight, regulations, prosecution or penalties. And the individuals who run these organizations would want any crime committed on behalf of the organization in pursuit of those goals to accrue no personal liability. While there is a desire for praise and recognition for what the individual achieves, their contribution to the organization, there is also a desire for anonymity within the organization, being able to hide behind the organization’s “walls”. What organizations also want though is not to have other organizations, perhaps more powerful than they are, to take advantage of them. So organizations, to achieve a balance between treatment given and treatment received, are willing to abide by the social contracts/the social fabric as currently defined by society.

As humans, of course, we are all subject to the flaws inherent in being human. There is always a person or group in power or an organization that is willing to live by an existing social contract which is in its favor until, as society changes, that social contract must change. There can be resistance by those who have benefited from the existing social contract to make changes to that contract for it may have benefited them financially, socially, or simply reinforced their beliefs. On a larger scale, different forms of government, (e.g. democracies, dictatorships or authoritarian rule), also have different social contracts in place (e.g. who gets to vote if they vote at all, access to basic health, shelter or food, who gets to marry) and while there are differences in these social contracts, what people globally want, what they find important is fundamentally the same.

This combination, I believe is at least partially responsible for the inexorably slow but consistent march by humanity to more tolerance and freedoms as well as societies with less violence for people over time. We may take three steps forward and two steps back, but over the long term we are moving in a consistently more liberal and tolerant direction. Why is the march of history in that direction? Because people are fundamentally the same and want the same things out of life that everyone else does.

Multi-national corporations have chased various social contracts that exist by location to maximize their profits. Looking for low standard of living, low cost environments, and regulatory-free environments to manufacture or provide services from. But there is an inherent conflict in that the social contracts/the social fabric in the locations that allow for profit maximization over time will change. It may take a long-time, likely too long, but basic salaries will rise, working conditions will be forced to improve, regulatory oversight to insure quality standards and lack of worker abuse will be put into place etc. And the ability to chase a social contract that is way out of whack with other social contracts will diminish.

Humans want to place their faith into something and due to that we have a tendency to ascribe even random events to intelligent entities, or we see patterns to events where none may exist. Built into all of us there is a desire to allow some entity, which is more knowing or more powerful than us to provide guidance or direction. Some put their faith into their religion, some into science, some into their political leaders, and some into their leaders at work. Me? I’ll put my long-term faith into humanity as a whole as our humanity allows us to reach beyond where we are, even if sometimes in the short-term we will fall short. As people together, we will determine our own future.

© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm

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

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