Capacity to Act

Several years ago Robert Shaw and David Nadler wrote an article called Capacity to Act (in Human Resource Planning, Volume 14, No. 4). It's worth reading now as it addresses some of the questions people have regarding why some companies are able to be adaptive and redesign themselves in the face of new challenges and others are not. Newspaper industry take note. The authors identify three factors that they say contribute to this inability to adapt.

1. Priority stress which occurs when there is a lack of clear focus on core priorities i.e. people don't know what is important

2. A bias towards activity versus results – when people come to value standard operating procedures and the security that comes with following these procedures over improving organizational performance

3. Perceived powerlessness which occurs when managers believe they lack the authority and power necessary to make important decisions.

It's a simple and persuasive argument and they put forward four suggestions for address the issue i.e. ways of creating capacity to act.

  • Create clarity in purpose and direction
  • Focus on results by rewarding the right performance
  • Move decision making downwards
  • Restructure organizational units to be smaller and more automous.

This all sounds straightforward. However, with all these things the 'what to do' is relatively easy. The 'how to do it' so that it works is usually the challenge. What the article does not tackle is the emotions and responses of people who don't want to do things differently from the way they've always done them.

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