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Signs of Intelligence

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I have to wonder, we have spent a good deal of effort in trying to locate intelligent life elsewhere in our neighborhood, the Milky Way Galaxy. If we assume that intelligent life elsewhere is inquisitive, how likely is it that they also went looking, found us and simply moved on?    

I have been reading up on current events, the latest news about what is going on in the world and I find that my assumptions that humans represent intelligent life are seriously challenged. We seem to represent nothing more than socially challenged, power-hungry, biased, bigoted, fear-oriented monkeys, preying on those who are weaker or more vulnerable, and intent on destroying the very world which gave birth to us. And that is on a good day.

To make it worse there are many who play off of our short-comings as a species to advance their own dubious agendas or personal gratifications, anything for advantage, personal pleasure or power. I went through a period, for a while, where I felt that many of the issues that the world faced were due to a lack of empathy of one group for what another was facing. I was wrong.

There is evil in this world. Evil is not simply a point of view that compares unfavorably to your own. Evil is not simply due to a challenging upbringing, or social and economic disadvantages that one group forces on another. Evil can only be described as an inherent pathology buried in our genetic code. Evil that pits one group against another for personal or tribal gain. It is easy to see how over time legends of “supernatural” evil emerged, but there is nothing “supernatural” about it, it is just us.

I know I am being harsh and I don’t mean to be. There are many good hearted, kind people in this world who help out their fellows without looking for personal gain. But what are we forced to give our attention to and on what does the media tend to focus? The negative extreme of the distribution. The evil that does exist takes the majority of our time, effort and resources to keep it in check. There is some research that points out that humans as a species are “self-domesticating”. That over the long run those who are more collaborative and behave in a more socially desirable fashion have a breeding advantage. Over time those characteristics are becoming more and more dominant and the distribution shifts. But we would seem to have a ways to go before we eliminate evil, if we, without evolving beyond our humanness, ever will.

If we shift our gaze beyond an examination of the negative end of the distribution, perhaps what we will notice is that most of the distribution laying before us is more positive in nature. That most people do not give in or have it inherent within themselves to give way to their baser natures. Existing beyond the extreme negative end of the distribution lies the overwhelming vast majority of us.

Positivism. Most people are good and want to do good things during their time in this world. The care about each other and building a better future, if not for themselves then for their children. They tend to be pragmatic for they know that hardened, intransient positions are an eventual dead-end for everyone. And they are willing to work collaboratively with their fellow humans to achieve improvements.

Is it possible to work collaboratively with all towards a better future? My sense of pragmatism tells me no, with some there is just no point. But I am willing to give it my all to find those who are willing to work for a better future for all of humanity.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

September 1, 2014 at 9:26 pm

Employee Attitudes during this Recession

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“When the tide goes out, you can see who’s been swimming naked.”

Warren Buffet on leadership in a recession.

How do employees react during a recessionary period? What happens to their attitudes about work and the work environment? What about their perceptions towards leadership? And most importantly do those attitudes, or shifts in attitudes actually affect organizational performance? The information that has been distributed on this topic over the last couple of years has been somewhat less than clear, or at the very least has been sending mixed interpretive messages. Some of the reported data has indicated that employees on a whole are less positive, less engaged or as some term it actively disengaged. That finding could represent a possible reaction to the somewhat harsh measures that some leaders adopted as they attempted to increase the odds of organizational survival during a deep recession.

Other reported findings strongly affirmed that employees are more positive now than prior to this recessionary period, possibly as a result of realizing how ugly things are on the outside, so the inside is looking pretty good. That would be a result underpinned by both frame of reference comparisons and the notions of cognitive dissonance, the need to resolve conflictual cognitive positions (e.g. even though I used to really hate it here, the place must not be so bad since I am staying). Categorical statements, that something is all one way or the other, black or white, raise my warning antennas and so one is left wondering, is it possible to look across the various reported results, many of them stated in a categorical fashion, and make some sense of it all? Scott Brooks, Walter Reichman and I did just that and here is a summary of some of what we found.

Methodological observations regarding the reviewed reports:

Some of the reports we reviewed1 are based on client data, meaning data that has been collected from clients during the course of a consulting firm running their employee surveys. Client data over the course of a few years can change, depending on which clients the consulting firm happens to have, what survey cycles clients are on etc. One industry for instance that may be well-represented in the norms during normal economic times like retail, and has been hard hit by the recession may cut costs by delaying or canceling their survey, and so their industry may be underrepresented in the data during a recessionary period if the norms are client based. So when examining client data over time you may not be looking at an apples-to-apples comparison even if the data is coming from a single source such as a consulting company.

Additionally, surveys of clients that occur during recessions may represent clients that are weathering the recessionary storm slightly better than most, since the budget for collecting the data has not been axed, or the data may be coming from organizations that are deep adherents (at least more so than others) to the notions of collecting and measuring certain aspects of employee attitudes, employee engagement being one of those. And of course the employees themselves who are being surveyed in client based norms are the survivors, those who have not been laid-off, which may also have an impact on their attitudes, especially when compared to the general population. One approach to correcting some of the issues with client-based research is the use of a standard basket of companies for tracking purposes, similar to the Dow Jones Industrial Average methodology. That could be achieved through a consortium of companies who agree to share their results. That would fix the problem of which companies are included (since it would be standardized) but not who from each company is included (during a recession we would still be surveying only survivors).

Some of the reports that have attempted to shed light on the state of employee attitudes during this recession are based on random sample surveys or stratified random samples (meaning you make sure certain demographic categories, such as senior managers, or females etc. are adequately represented). These data are not client based, but rather are gathered from people who have agreed to complete surveys, usually for some kind of incentive, for instance, a chance to be entered into a lottery for each survey they complete. These surveys include a cross section of people, some employed, some under or unemployed but if sampled correctly are representative of the population as a whole, not necessarily the employed population, or the population from companies that care enough about employee attitudes to be out there measuring it. Depending on how the sample is drawn they may come from private and public sector organizations, government as well as not-for profit. It may include those working full-time as well as part-time. One issue of course here is the motivation that these individuals have for completing the survey. Many of them, we have to assume, are not doing it for the sake of the research, but rather in a fashion to maximize their ability to achieve whatever incentive is being offered. (That is why it is called an incentive.) That creates a question in many minds of just how these people will respond, and will they take the survey seriously.

One conclusion from looking at all of the data that gets put out is that unless it is clearly stated in the report, and often times it is not, and the methodology explicit, you really don’t know who is included in either client-based or in random sample survey reports and hence the conclusions from one report are not all that easily compared against another.

Some broad trends we saw:

  • “Engagement” during this recession has not declined.  With an eyeball meta-analysis, the actual change may be slight improvement, perhaps 2-4 percentage points over the last year.   This “surfs across” potentially meaningful differences in sampling, methodology and varied definitions of how you measure engagement. But those institutions that describe engagement as declining are in the minority.
  • Not all employee opinions act the same way, moving up or down in lockstep.
    • Stress is increasing.
    • Opinions about leaders have fluctuated.
    • US Employee Confidence hit a low 1Q09 and has not returned to the 2Q08 baseline.
    • One conclusion is that “engagement” may not be the best indicator of the strain of the recession on the employee population and hence organizational performance.
    • There is no “overall” recession impact across all survey topics
  • There is evidence of polarization within some organizations. While different across different studies, there seem to be segments (levels, functions, etc.) within the organization showing divergent trends:
    • Perhaps while engagement goes up, there is a growing core of actively disengaged employees.
    • Executives and middle management respond differently, though exactly which layer feels the squeeze most keenly is not clear from the reports (and they likely differ organization-by-organization… as is clear in some cases among our own clients).
  • Increasing frustrations (driven by increasing workload and lowered rewards/benefits) among high performers/high-potentials put them more at-risk for eventual voluntary turnover.

Some More Detail:

One concept created a good number of years ago called Employee Confidence© has been tracked quarterly since June 20083, by asking employees about attitudes towards their company’s internal as well as external performance (organizational performance). Internal covers such areas as business processes and leadership and external covers the attractiveness and value of products and services offered to the market as well as competitive positioning. Also tracked has been people’s perception of their personal situation, again both internally and externally. The internal situation deals with perceptions of job security and future prospects at current employers, and the external with being able to land on their feet elsewhere if necessary by finding another job. (To be part of this tracking study, which cut across the 12 largest economies globally, you needed to be: an over 18, full-time employee in the private sector, in a company with at least 100 employees. Data was collected quarterly on random samples of 5000 in the USA and 1000 in each of the other countries, with the exception of Russia where the number was 500. Incentives were used. The data was compared to known demographic characteristics of the working population in each of those countries.) Taking a step back from all the data, both from this Employee Confidence sample and from client based data, and drawing some insights and overall conclusions, or at least observations what we see as highlights include:

About Employee Engagement:

In 2008/2009 you generally did not see declining employee engagement scores at organizations (there was the occasional exception). The scores were flat at worst but most were actually rising with many hitting heights not seen within the organization prior. This was in spite of the general concern among clients that engagement would decline during the recession. Some of this can be attributed to good management taking action on important issues and some is environmental, a response to the concern that people have about losing their jobs. One notable study had a client with 7 point rise in their employee engagement score across about 25,000 people. A determination was made that 2-3 points of that rise was likely due to management actions and 4-5 points was due to the environment. (Drop me a note if you want to know how that was done jeffreysaltzman@orgvitality.com).

About Employee Satisfaction:

In many cases however, items that were markers of the employee’s current state of satisfaction with their situation declined. By way of explanation, a person can be very unhappy with increased workload and stress, with their 401k losing substantial value, with no company match, no raises, friends being laid off, increased concern about their own job security, perhaps seeing management taking care of themselves before the rank and file, but that person can still be engaged in their work. As an example, a person can be very engaged at their employer making buggy whips as Henry Ford is in the next building figuring out how to mass produce cars. They are engaged, working diligently to produce the best buggy whips in the world, but their level of engagement does not stop the world from changing nor does it assuage increased concern at seeing the world changing with perhaps the employer not changing or not changing fast enough to keep up. A corollary to this is the false notion that employees who complain are not engaged. They in fact may be the most engaged as they are trying to communicate to the organization information to head off a potential disaster as they see it.

While some people/organizations measure satisfaction and engagement with the same items, they are clearly different constructs. (Of course there is no agreed upon set of items in use to measure engagement within the employee survey industry which may account for some of the reported differences).

About Job Prospects and Job Security:

Being able to find other employment if necessary, which is normally very favorably rated, began to decline and has remained at or near the bottom of all the items tracked. Most normal people by nature tend to rate their skill sets highly and see value (beyond what others may see) in what they can do.  This makes them normally very confident in their ability to find another job should the need arise. The precipitous decline in this dimension is a fundamental shift in people’s confidence (it has rocked their world and how they self-perceive) and affects all sorts of behavior including buying patterns and a willingness to tolerate intolerable conditions at an employer. As this score recovers we will see people who had been staying with an employer because of a lack of opportunity elsewhere move on with a corresponding increase in voluntary turnover. This may be starting already as for the last 3 months voluntary quits has surpassed layoffs as why people leave jobs and for the 15 months prior to that layoffs surpassed quits.4 This finding is perhaps giving an inkling of what is to come.

Perceptions of job security at the beginning of the recession when all the layoffs started were understandably in steep decline. This lasted through the first quarter of 2009 and roughly corresponded to when a massive bulge of layoffs occurred with 3979 mass layoff events occurring in 1Q09, a record high affecting 705,000 people5. This also corresponded to the lowest Employee Confidence scores recorded. However, once that bottom was hit there was a rather sharp rebound later in the year. One possible interpretation is that employees felt that the organizations had cut to the bone and could not cut any more. Employees felt that they had survived so far and so where likely to weather the storm. Exceptions to this pattern of decline and then rebound occurred in industries that were weathering the recessionary storm rather well including healthcare, education, government and food service. They did not see nearly as much of a decline. Females were more positive about job security than males, not because they were females, but because of an over-representation in industries that were doing ok. The gap between males and females disappeared when the rebound occurred, possibly due to the males feeling that all the cutting that was to be done had been carried out.

About Business Process:

During this recession it was pretty clear in the data that the majority of employers were trying to cut their way to profitability, rather than innovating with new attractive offerings or by moving into new markets. They were revamping internal processes, laying off people, cutting budgets and benefits. They were looking inward rather than outward to find solutions to their performance problems. And while it is always healthy to improve internal organizational performance, in this case it is a rather risk adverse approach compared to modifying the products and/or services being offered. It is more of a sure thing to cut back on costs rather than create products that people find attractive, even in a recession, as a way to protect margins in the short term. Not every company took that path however and historically companies that have been started in recessionary periods included: HP, GE, Burger King, Fedex, Microsoft, CNN, Trader Joes, and our own OrgVitality. Each one creating a path to success based on offering attractive and valued products and services to the marketplace that were relevant to the economic time period in which they found themselves. In this recession Autodesk, Nucor, Colgate Palmolive, Apple, Coca Cola, Target, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, and Google among others for instance have done quite well by developing new and innovative products and by moving into new markets.2

About Organizational Effectiveness and Leadership:

At the beginning of the recession, the back-half of 2008, management was given the benefit of the doubt and was given stable or slightly increasing scores from the rank and file regarding their job performance. Of course you need to keep in mind that the rank and file during this period are the survivors, those who had not yet lost their jobs. As it appeared that the recession was going to get really ugly in the first quarter of 2009, the rank and file lost a lot of confidence in management and performance ratings on management plummeted. The realization hit that there was no magic bullet that the recession was going to be painful and deep and of a long duration and the blame, at least partially, was laid at management’s feet.

Ratings of leadership over the last year and a half or so have been very volatile with some organizations reporting extremely favorable ratings on leadership while at the same time others are reporting the poorest scores of recent memory. There has also been more divergent trends within organizations, often with vital groups perhaps feeling more stress than others (e.g., VP levels) declining dramatically while other levels are able to maintain or improve. A sharp recovery was noted in the perceptions of the job being done by management, as rated by employees, during the back half of 2009 as many of the programs designed to temper the recession began to have an effect among those still employed and further draconian layoffs were not as prevalent.

About Geographic differences in the USA:

If you compared the attitudes of employees against the unemployment level at the state level a significant relationship was found. In other words, in general those states that were exhibiting higher levels of unemployment were generally those where employees had the lowest levels of confidence. Some interesting patterns and exceptions to that statement emerged.

Those employees in southern states tended to be more positive than their unemployment level suggested they should be. In general, those in the mid-west were less positive than they should have been with the notable exceptions of Nebraska, the most positive single state and the state with the lowest level of unemployment, and Michigan with the highest level of unemployment and the second lowest level of employee confidence. Those states located in the northeast and west had employee attitudes as predicted by their unemployment levels with the exception of Oregon where employee attitudes were less positive than they should have been. The states that were exceptions certainly had the attitudes going in the predicted direction given their unemployment levels, it is just that the corresponding employee attitudes were more exaggerated than expected in either the positive or negative direction.6

Interpretation:

  • The recession has put organizations and employees on edge.  While dealing with the increased stress and load created by aggressive cost-cutting, employees have a heightened sensitivity to leadership messages and missteps and organizational cues regarding the future.  Critically, employees watch how the crisis has revealed the organization’s commitment (or not) to its stated values.
  • As a result of this sensitivity, organizations may experience greater swings in engagement and/or satisfaction through the recession (the two not necessarily being related or moving in the same direction), though the swings may go in either direction and may be concentrated within a specific population. These swings may occur within key segments (e.g., management layers, functional areas or performance levels).
  • But changes in survey results seen across clients lead to a conclusion: the recession isn’t the only cause of changes in employee opinions and engagement in particular; it’s the organization’s response to the recession.
  • In many cases, employees have rallied behind their organizations’ recovery efforts, and are as engaged or more engaged than ever.  In part, they are not simply comparing the “now” to what was.  Clearly they understand that the crisis has demanded dramatic change, and they have hunkered down to help.  To some extent they may compare themselves to other cases of what might be, for example to the failings of other organizations or to their unemployed acquaintances.
  • One way to sum it up is that the recession has become a test of Vitality including strategy, values, behaviors, organizational agility and resiliency.  Organizations are not passive players regarding the degree to which decision-making authority is sucked upwards, open communication is stifled, leadership commitment to values are maintained, or the emphasis on service remains central.  Certainly, it has become harder to invest in employees.  But in many cases, employees understand that and may take even greater pride in how their organizations handle the recession.

1Sources of published findings which were reviewed included: OrgVitality, McKinsey, CLC, Metrus, Valtera, Modern Survey, Kenexa and Towers Perrin among others.

2The Business Week 50, Business Week, March 26, 2009

3The Employee Confidence Framework was developed by Jeffrey M. Saltzman.

4 MSNBC June 9th, 2010

5Bureau of Labor Statistics; http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/mslo.pdf

6Saltzman & Brooks, “Strategic Surveying in the Global Marketplace and the Role of Vitality Measures”, appearing in “Going Global” (Kyle Lundby, editor), 2010 Jossey-Bass

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Employee Survey Interpretation – 101

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An executive of a financial institution was examining his employee survey results. He was very pleased with the findings and he was especially pleased with the comparisons of his institution to the outside world on common items or norms. On each item that we went over his smile grew larger and larger as he saw that his institution was among the top performing organizations, until we got to pay. When people in his organization were asked to rate their pay they responded in a typical or about average fashion. He asked, “How can I be such a top performer in so many areas and be merely average on how people rate their pay?” I asked him what pay strategy his organization used and without skipping a beat he replied “To pay about average.” He was expecting halo, that exceptional responses to one area of the survey would bleed over to other areas and give more average findings a boost. I indicated that people actually read the items and differentiate among them, scoring average on average performing items and above average on strengths of the organization.

Often times as we get survey responses back we can struggle to interpret the meaning behind the numbers. While not everyone needs to use a similar approach to gain insight into the employee survey data, here is an outline of an approach that I use to obtain a preliminary view of an organization’s findings.   

The first thing I like to do is to look at the results in an absolute fashion, meaning simply what is the percent favorable, neutral and unfavorable? And I like to start down at the item level to get a better sense of what is happening in the organization, looking at the details then work my way up to dimensions or indices that are included in the survey. One common misperception about survey findings is that the results are a like a school’s report card, where traditionally a score of 90% or better is an “A”, 80% is a “B” and 70% a “C”. This is not an accurate analogy and a better one is to say that survey results are more like election results, if you get more than 50% you win (in a two party election). 

I first look at the favorable side of the item responses (typically top 2-box on a 5 point scale). 50%-65% favorable I would call “moderately favorable”, 65%-75% positive I would call “favorable” and more than 75% positive I would call “strongly favorable”.  I then turn to the other end of the spectrum and look at the responses in the bottom 2-boxes. I get a bit concerned when about 1 out of 5 people are negative or 20%, and as the negative grows to about 1 out of 3 (33%) my concern increasingly grows and when it hits 2 out of 5 or 40% the organization needs to very clearly understand the issues that the items response represents. (I find it very helpful to picture the responses in terms of headcount – 1 out of 2 people for instance feel this way and to ask a question to myself – is that acceptable? What does that mean in terms of organizational performance?) What I literally do as a first pass is take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side I start listing out the items that are at 75% or more favorable and on the other side I start listing out those that are 25% or greater negative. The cut scores are not necessarily cast in concrete and I will modify them if the data for the organization is exceptionally high or low.

I also examine the total pattern of responses across all of the response choices and take special note of where the middle “neutral” choice is larger then about 25% and I also keep a look out for a few other patterns. For instance if you have a roughly equal distribution across the favorable, neutral and unfavorable choices you are looking at a responses that is called “mixed”, if you ask 3 people their opinion on this topic you get 3 different answers. This could be indicative of a lack of clarity or a very uneven performance on the item. Large neutrals are valid and they usually do not mean that someone has no opinion; they mean that someone has an opinion and that opinion is neutral. For instance, if you ask a room full of people to rate the taste of vanilla ice cream on a scale of 1-3 (to keep it simple), where a 1 is “I love it, it is my favorite flavor” a 3 is “I dislike it, I will do anything to avoid eating it” and a 2 is “not my favorite, but if it is in front of me it will disappear” the vast majority of people choose 2. Does this mean they have no opinion on the taste of vanilla ice cream? Of course not. They have an opinion and the opinion is “middle of the road”, not strongly positive or negative. It is valid, it is real and it is not negative or positive.

Once I have my two lists I take a step back and try to see how the items listed hang together, if at all. For instance is the positive side of the page dominated by items dealing with treatment or customer focus and is the negative side dealing with items surrounding employee’s career opportunities?

Once that is done, I do a second pass through the items and this time I am doing a comparative analysis. I will compare the responses from each item to the larger group of which the organization is part – so a department within a plant will be contrasted against the results for the entire plant. I will also contrast the findings against external norms and internal benchmarks.  Often these surveys are census surveys with very large numbers involved, so statistical relevance is really not meaningful when trying to decide if a group is similar, more or less favorable than the comparison group. If you go back into organizations after surveys are run over time and interview people living within those organizations and ask them when did the place “feel” any different to them the following pattern tends to emerge. At about a 5 point difference (more or less favorable), people begin to say things like “can’t quite put my finger on it, but we may be improving” (or declining as the case may be). Five points seems to be a “just noticeable difference”. At 10 points people say things like “things are moving in the right (or wrong) direction). And at 15 points people use words like “feels completely different”. So again I take out my paper and draw a line down the middle and on one side list out where the organization is 10 points or more higher than the comparison and on the other side where the organization is 10 points or more lower. (I realize that you can use excel for these exercises, it is just that old habits die hard).     

So now I have a list of key strengths (more than 75% favorable), key issues (more than 25% negative), and where the organization I am reviewing is more favorable and less favorable than the comparison groups in a meaningful way. I repeat these steps at the dimension level. I next put the findings through my exception filters. 

One finding that is very common is that more senior people tend to be more favorable in their survey responses than less senior ones. While not every survey asks that demographic for those which do looking for exceptions to that finding can add insight. (There are some exceptions to this pattern, such as when asking about quality or customer service, it is not unusual to find the more senior folks to be more critical). So I now look at the responses surrounding strategy, communications, decision making etc. and I look to see if the expected pattern holds. And where it doesn’t hold, say for instance if middle managers look more like hourly workers on understanding strategy, I make note of it. What I am looking for here are exceptions to typically seen patterns, for these exceptions add insight into what is going on within the organization. 

Another exception filter that I use is reserved for “zero tolerance items”. These are health and safety items, harassment or discrimination items; ethics items etc. in essence items where anything less than 100% favorable is just not acceptable. I throw out the guidelines that I listed above and list out any items that need to score 100%.

A third filter I use has to do with strategy but in many cases it is only possible for someone internal to the client company to use this filter. Surveys can tell you the state of the environment, at this moment in time, within the organization. What they can not tell you is that with the pressures and challenges facing the organization over the next say 5 years, this is where we need to get to in a strategic sense. The survey is a good jumping off point but one role of management is to strategically decide that to compete successfully in their market niche, with their products, this is where we need to be on certain items, maybe items on innovation or customer focus or on responsiveness. And an interpretation of the results can benefit by taking that into consideration. A closely related filter has to do with what the organization needs to be “the best in the world” at. I would argue that no organization had the ability, the resources, the time, and the funds, to be the best in the world at everything. And in fact some of the items on the survey may be somewhat contradictory to be “the best at”. For instance, it you are the most innovative or most responsive it is difficult or impossible to be the best value. In order to be the best value, cost cutting that tends to get in the way of being the most innovative or responsive needs to occur. So a strategic decision to be made is what will we do exceptionally well, to be the best in the world at and what is ok to be average at?

I then examine the items that my perusal has brought to my attention through another template or framework that I call Message, Performance, and Future. Here is how I define Message, Performance, and Future.

Message: These are items that have to do with how the organization is describing itself to the employees and their role in it. They deal with clarity regarding what the organization is about, how it will operate and how each person contributes to delivering on those goals. Is there an inspiring mission? Importantly are the organizational communications delivering that Message consistent throughout all the levels of the organization? Are policies and practices in-line with that Message? Is it clear what each person’s role is in support of the Message?

Performance: These are items that deal with people getting what they need (in the broadest sense) to be able to deliver on that Message – to get the job done? Performance should be thought of in the broadest sense, including such areas as teamwork, effective management, communications, decision making, training, equipment, resources, processes and procedures. 

Future: These are items that give people a sense of a longer term benefit to being associated with the organization, that they have a positive Future and a sense of belonging, of being valued by the organization? These are the compelling reasons for them to stick around for the long-term with the organization.

The items that I have now placed onto my various lists can fall (sometimes with a bit of gray) into one of these categories. It can be very helpful for an organization to see that their issues are all about Message or are restricted to Performance for instance. It can help point them in the right direction from an action standpoint.

While no two organizations are absolutely identical, no two analyses need be either, but a consistent approach to an analysis, even if it just personal preference can make the interpretation of your findings a bit easier.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 16, 2009 at 8:01 am

Somewhere Else on the Continuum

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Normal. What is it? Webster defines normal as: 2 a: according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle b: conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. Some make fun of others being “normal”, others make fun of people for not being normal, some work diligently to be different, praising their abnormality as a virtue, yet being “normal”, however that is viewed by their peers, and the acceptance that flows from that, is what every adolescent inwardly strives for – even if they don’t really know what it is.

Rod Serling’s series The Twilight Zone aired an episode on November 11, 1960, called “Eye of the Beholder”.  The short story depicts a horribly disfigured woman who has had operation after operation in a desperate attempt to make herself beautiful, or at least not horribly misshapen. This is her last attempt and she waits impatiently in her hospital room until it is time to take the bandages off. Finally the appointed time arrives and as the bandages fall away she gazes into a mirror to see a stunningly beautiful face. A moment later she screams horribly and collapses into an inconsolable heap on the floor. The camera pans around the room to reveal that everyone else in this “Twilight Zone” is, according to our standards, horribly misshapen, and that here being misshapen is in fact “normal”.  But being normal is not really that simple.

Most things in life are not binary. You are not simply rich or poor, tall or short, fat or thin, beautiful or misshapen, sane or insane. You typically fall somewhere in the middle of a continuum, and most of us typically fall in the “fat” part of the normal distribution curve and are hence dubbed “normal”. What is abnormal though? Is abnormal one standard deviation from the mean, two standard deviations, or three?  And what we define as abnormal has broad implications for those dubbed so.  The New York Times in an article titled “States Face Decisions on Who Is Mentally Fit to Vote” (June 19, 2007), describes two inmates, who by reason of insanity, were found innocent of murder and yet historically have been allowed to vote in elections. They were far enough out on the distribution (classified as abnormal) not to be held accountable for their crimes and yet are not far enough out on the distribution (classified as normal) to be prevented from voting. I could make a joke here but I will bite my tongue. There is an implication here that is worth mentioning. Namely, the implication is that you can be considered normal, (within a certain distance from the mean), on one aspect of who you are and can be considered abnormal in another. If we were all sociopathic killers, then being a sociopathic killer would be normal, as difficult as it is for us to think that way.

The continuum of normal runs in both directions from the mean. Think for instance of cleanliness. Most of us are just average when it come to our compulsiveness for cleanliness within our lives. However, some of us are exceedingly sloppy, at the lower end of the continuum and others of us are exceedingly fastidious, at the upper end of the continuum. Abnormality comes in two flavors, too much or too little of a characteristic.

Being classified as normal or abnormal does not just pertain to the individual level but also to the various levels of organizational units that we humans create. When one culture defines a specific degree or a certain aspect of their society (an organizational unit) as normal and a different culture defines that same degree or aspect as abnormal there exists the potential for an explosive mix. For instance, the circumcision of women is considered abnormal in western culture and is often described as mutilation. Yet in other cultures it is considered normal. Many in western cultures feel so strongly about this point and its damage to women that we attempt to promulgate our standards of normalcy onto other cultures. We find it difficult to understand why there is resistance to the common sense notion that mutilating women is wrong. While this extreme example make it easier for us to say what is right and what is wrong (according to our perspective), sometimes the choices we have to make are not so starkly clear. Tattoos were once considered abnormal and something that happened only to sailors when they got drunk. Our society however has changed the definition of what is normal when it comes to self-mutilation and tattoos as well as other body piercing are now much more commonly accepted. In Slack, I examine the pressures within society to conform to the norm and follow the crowd.

There is another aspect to normal that affects organizations and needs to be examined. Does normal infer mediocrity? If you are like every other organization out there, an also ran, how do you standout form the crowd, how do you differentiate your product or service? So in the case of organizational performance is it good to be abnormal, at the high end of the distribution? I would argue so, but I would also argue that no organization has the resources, the time, energy, people, money etc., to be an abnormally high performer in all aspect of their performance, and that one critical strategic issue for organizations to deal with is to decide which aspects of their performance do they need to be abnormal upon, or if we want to be politically correct, world-class performers upon. Additionally, being at the high end of the distribution on certain aspects of performance negates the ability to be high on other aspects of performance. For instance, if the organization is to be the most customer focused, highest quality, most innovative, it is quite difficult to be the lowest cost provider. It is in essence a contradiction, to be the lowest cost you would need to sacrifice services in order to meet that goal, sacrifices that would be sure to affect your ability to be the most customer focused, most innovative and highest quality.

But there is a special case here, a situation that if the organization can create will cause substantial rewards to accrue and that is the control of the definition of normalcy. What is defined as normal is a moving target. What was once abnormal can be shifted in perception and made part of the mainstream, part of normalcy. If an organization that is operating in a normal fashion can successful implement a transformational change, redefining not only itself but the definition of what is normal from a product or process perspective it can control the market for that service or product. FedEx redefined the speed at which a package can be delivered and controlled the market, it created a new definition of normal, the standard by which everyone else gets judged. I no longer had to wait 2-3 days for my package; I could get it there overnight.   Apple created a new definition of the normal way in which we bought and listened to music. Ford created a new definition of affordability of the automobile, creating a new normal regarding who could own a car. The Japanese car companies can along much later and redefined what “normal” quality levels were.  We are not simply talking about innovation here. We are talking about the kind of innovation that redefines a market that causes a shift in definition, the definition of what is normal. Unfortunately, many companies are not up to the challenge, (see We are Currently Experiencing Unusually High Call Volumes), but for those who can change that definition, establishing a new normal, the potential rewards are enormous.

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

Visit OV: http://www.orgvitality.com

Somewhere else on the continuum

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Normal. What is it? Webster defines normal as: 2 a: according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle b: conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. Some make fun of others being “normal”, others make fun of people for not being normal, some work diligently to be different, praising their abnormality as a virtue, yet being “normal”, however that is viewed by their peers, and the acceptance that flows from that, is what every adolescent inwardly strives for – even if they don’t really know what it is.

Rod Serling’s series The Twilight Zone aired an episode on November 11, 1960, called “Eye of the Beholder”.  The short story depicts a horribly disfigured woman who has had operation after operation in a desperate attempt to make herself beautiful, or at least not horribly misshapen. This is her last attempt and she waits impatiently in her hospital room until it is time to take the bandages off. Finally the appointed time arrives and as the bandages fall away she gazes into a mirror to see a stunningly beautiful face. A moment later she screams horribly and collapses into an inconsolable heap on the floor. The camera pans around the room to reveal that everyone else in this “Twilight Zone” is, according to our standards, horribly misshapen, and that here being misshapen is in fact “normal”.  But being normal is not really that simple.

Most things in life are not binary. You are not simply rich or poor, tall or short, fat or thin, beautiful or misshapen, sane or insane. You typically fall somewhere in the middle of a continuum, and most of us typically fall in the “fat” part of the normal distribution curve and are hence dubbed “normal”. What is abnormal though? Is abnormal one standard deviation from the mean, two standard deviations, or three?  And what we define as abnormal has broad implications for those dubbed so.  The New York Times in an article titled “States Face Decisions on Who Is Mentally Fit to Vote” (June 19, 2007), describes two inmates, who by reason of insanity, were found innocent of murder and yet historically have been allowed to vote in elections. They were far enough out on the distribution (classified as abnormal) not to be held accountable for their crimes and yet are not far enough out on the distribution (classified as normal) to be prevented from voting. I could make a joke here but I will bite my tongue. There is an implication here that is worth mentioning. Namely, the implication is that you can be considered normal, (within a certain distance from the mean), on one aspect of who you are and can be considered abnormal in another. If we were all sociopathic killers, then being a sociopathic killer would be normal, as difficult as it is for us to think that way.

The continuum of normal runs in both directions from the mean. Think for instance of cleanliness. Most of us are just average when it come to our compulsiveness for cleanliness within our lives. However, some of us are exceedingly sloppy, at the lower end of the continuum and others of us are exceedingly fastidious, at the upper end of the continuum. Abnormality comes in two flavors, too much or too little of a characteristic. 

Being classified as normal or abnormal does not just pertain to the individual level but also to the various levels of organizational units that we humans create. When one culture defines a specific degree or a certain aspect of their society (an organizational unit) as normal and a different culture defines that same degree or aspect as abnormal there exists the potential for an explosive mix. For instance, the circumcision of women is considered abnormal in western culture and is often described as mutilation. Yet in other cultures it is considered normal. Many in western cultures feel so strongly about this point and its damage to women that we attempt to promulgate our standards of normalcy onto other cultures. We find it difficult to understand why there is resistance to the common sense notion that mutilating women is wrong. While this extreme example make it easier for us to say what is right and what is wrong (according to our perspective), sometimes the choices we have to make are not so starkly clear. Tattoos were once considered abnormal and something that happened only to sailors when they got drunk. Our society however has changed the definition of what is normal when it comes to self-mutilation and tattoos as well as other body piercing are now much more commonly accepted. In Slack, I examine the pressures within society to conform to the norm and follow the crowd.  

There is another aspect to normal that affects organizations and needs to be examined. Does normal infer mediocrity? If you are like every other organization out there, an also ran, how do you standout form the crowd, how do you differentiate your product or service? So in the case of organizational performance is it good to be abnormal, at the high end of the distribution? I would argue so, but I would also argue that no organization has the resources, the time, energy, people, money etc., to be an abnormally high performer in all aspect of their performance, and that one critical strategic issue for organizations to deal with is to decide which aspects of their performance do they need to be abnormal upon, or if we want to be politically correct, world-class performers upon. Additionally, being at the high end of the distribution on certain aspects of performance negates the ability to be high on other aspects of performance. For instance, if the organization is to be the most customer focused, highest quality, most innovative, it is quite difficult to be the lowest cost provider. It is in essence a contradiction, to be the lowest cost you would need to sacrifice services in order to meet that goal, sacrifices that would be sure to affect your ability to be the most customer focused, most innovative and highest quality.   

But there is a special case here, a situation that if the organization can create will cause substantial rewards to accrue and that is the control of the definition of normalcy. What is defined as normal is a moving target. What was once abnormal can be shifted in perception and made part of the mainstream, part of normalcy. If an organization that is operating in a normal fashion can successful implement a transformational change, redefining not only itself but the definition of what is normal from a product or process perspective it can control the market for that service or product. FedEx redefined the speed at which a package can be delivered and controlled the market, it created a new definition of normal, the standard by which everyone else gets judged. I no longer had to wait 2-3 days for my package; I could get it there overnight.   Apple created a new definition of the normal way in which we bought and listened to music. Ford created a new definition of affordability of the automobile, creating a new normal regarding who could own a car. The Japanese car companies can along much later and redefined what “normal” quality levels were.  We are not simply talking about innovation here. We are talking about the kind of innovation that redefines a market that causes a shift in definition, the definition of what is normal. Unfortunately, many companies are not up to the challenge, but for those who can change that definition, establishing a new normal, the potential rewards are enormous.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 17, 2009 at 5:47 am

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