Intersections

In several meetings this week a common problem emerged even though the topics of the meetings were completely different. Briefly they focused on clashes (and crashes) of one kind or another. Take this example:

We are introducing all kinds of software and processes designed to encourage employee collaboration – wikis, Interact, collaborative on-line events (like IBM jams), internal social media, blogs and so on. Simultaneously we are encouraging employees to contribute, make suggestions, participate, speak up and generally feel they have a voice that will be listened to. We're doing this in order to develop innovative and adaptive responses to organizational context changes and become more effective.

But we are not doing enough, for various reasons, to examine or change the formal systems and processes which bind people to legacy norms: linear progression through a multi-level grade system, annual performance appraisals to a set format, career movement within the current 'silo' that the employee is in, and controlling rather than collaborative management style.

Showing the will and providing some resources in the hope that effectiveness will be the outcome is not going to work when the bindings are too tight to allow movement. It's rather like telling someone that they must get to a destination in the fastest and most effective way using their judgment on what this can be but then restricting the route and the vehicle/method.

Another example is one where we are encouraging people to demonstrate that – at whatever level they are in the organization – they are still leaders. We run a weekly one minute video showcasing examples. Unfortunately the intention on this clashes with the reality that positional leaders want to be in the limelight and so block their subordinates from participating, even when the subordinate has been the one approached to participate. (We haven't got over the barrier of getting subordinates to just participate without seeking permission from their managers).

So here are two major clashes:

a) Clashes of structural intent: what we say we want – everyone collaborating and contributing in a flat organization, clashing with structure reality – you can only get your voice heard and acted on if you've got to the top of the structure

b) Clashes of leadership perception: what we say we want – to identify leaders at all levels in the organization clashing with leaders tightly holding on to their positional power.

Two more clashes occurred that I noticed also last week:

a) Initiating a 'good' notion that we want to become organizationally more capable at negotiating, putting across the view that everyone negotiates all the time to a greater or lesser extent (even for their place in the supermarket line). This is fine as it would enable us to have more effective interaction with our customers and suppliers, but we also have a system of checks and balances that encourage 'entitlement' thinking that causes people to hang on to what they want. A sad example of this was when one of the Union reps insisted that he have a car parking space when others were denied. (No mention of negotiation or representing his members on this one ).

b) Another 'good' notion that we would like people to value diversity in others, not just in at the visible level of ethnicity, gender, physical ability, etc. but at the style, perception and ways of thinking/operating level. This stems from the belief that a diversity of views encourages creativity and innovation. Indeed, Reckitt Benckiser is one of the companies that is successful in encouraging a diversity of view, even when this leads to conflict, believing that conflict can be creative and lead to good outcomes.

When in 2009 Reckitt Benckiser won The Economist's Innovation Award in the category Corporate Use of Innovation, one of the judges commented,"The company has demonstrated strong sales and profit growth, in large part because of the strength of its innovative and entrepreneurial corporate culture. Controversy is encouraged, bureaucracy avoided and performance rewarded. A diverse multinational workforce provides a wealth of perspectives on consumer behavior. The company has a talent for dreaming up products that consumers did not realize they wanted (and for giving them crazy names). Some 35-40% of its sales come from products launched in the past three years, which is a clear indication of its continued ability to dream up winning new ideas."

But in our case the organization, while very good at embracing traditional diversity is much less adept at valuing different style and ways of thinking attrributes.

So my question now is how do I help the organization manage what I now see as the intersection of good intent versus difficult reality: systems and processes change usually lags or stymies desired behavior change which, in my experience is one of the reasons why change fails, managers find it hard to give up positional power trappings and status symbols once they have them, another reason why change fails. It's rather like traffic police at a crossroads the rate of flow across the intersections have to be managed carefully to keep things moving. The flows have to be managed simultaneously and the intersection has to be kept clear.

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