At sixes and sevens

I'm currently working with an organization where I often hear possessive phrases like 'my sixes and sevens', or 'he's my six', or 'my sevens are good', and recently I was met someone and the person introducing us said 'meet my new seven'. I found out the real name of seven when I asked her. Sometimes I get emails with subject headings like 'Review of the sevens'. Initially all this number stuff baffled me. Then I found out it was about grades. I had to go and look up the grading system as I had no idea whether six was higher or lower than seven and what any other grades might be. (Bizarrely six is higher than seven).

Describing people by numeric grade rather than name is, for me, a weird echo of a past era. I was early in my career at Price Waterhouse when I remember being appalled that someone introduced himself as 'I'm an A1'. Again I had to ask him his name.

I am still appalled by people being lumped into number collectives but what I find amusing in this instance is that the phrase 'at sixes and sevens' is a popular phrase used to convey 'something that's in a state of total confusion or disarray, or people who are collectively in a muddle or at loggerheads about how to deal with some situation.' Hmm – maybe this is why six is higher than seven in the organization, but on the other hand most organizations I work with give the impression of being somewhat confused, hence the need for 'transformation' or 'change' – but maybe this organization is more open in its admission by openly talking about 'sixes and sevens' – they just omit the 'at'?

So are all these sixes and sevens contributing to an organization that is 'at sixes and sevens'? I'm curious to know what would happen if we changed/removed the grade/labeling system. I'm not sure it is of any value in its current form. Indeed I think it could be a value destroyer.

Grading systems in most organizations sit alongside competency frameworks, performance management systems, accountability levels, decision and authority rights, and other formal compliance and governance controls that attempt to keep people in order. They tend to give rise to bureaucratic systems which if anyone attempted to cost out in terms of operating them (if you have, let me know) would probably be abolished on the spot. Think how much time you have spent on performance reviews in the past year – either reviewing other people and/or participating in your own and recommending or not promotion to the next grade. And grading performance: met, well-met,exceeded … What is the financial cost of this and does it yield a good return on investment?

Grades are an indication of formal position in a hierarchy, and I am not against hierarchies per se – Steve Denning has written an interesting piece on this topic. However, position in a hierarchy does not necessarily reflect competence, ability to learn, experience or anything else that offers insight into human potential. I vividly remember the man who checked my entry card as I passed every day entering the building. Striking up a conversation with him I discovered he was a champion rose grower and had developed a new strain of rose that had won a European gold medal. He was the lowest grade in the organization yet think what skills of patience, experiment, innovation, knowledge sharing, and so on he exhibited in his non-work life. In the rose growers' grading system he was probably at the top.

Grading systems act as filters on perceptions. While I was thinking of grades what sprang to mind was an image of six neatly graded eggs in an egg box. (Not seven, because they wouldn't fit neatly in a box so maybe in the grading system where sixes are higher than sevens it may be that it's the grade seven out of the box thinker who doesn't get in? What does that mean for the organization?)

Out of curiosity I looked up egg grading. The American Egg Board has a whole system – rivalling any organizational one – for grading eggs. You'll be relieved to hear that 'the quality of an egg is determined by the grade of the egg and is not related to size. All eggs are classified according to the US standards for interior and exterior quality factors. This determines the grade of the egg as AA, A, or B.' There are six grades of size ranging from 'jumbo' to 'pee wee'. So an egg can be graded as 'jumbo AA' for example. Rather like Grade 7, well-met, don't you think?

Sadly we don't know how the eggs feel about being graded in this way but we do know from blind trials that eaters of them cannot tell the flavour difference between the grades (size or quality). Read this very funny example of one trial. The result was 'It was pretty clear evidence that as far as eggs go, the mindset of the taster has far more bearing on the flavour of the egg than the egg itself.'

Thus it is with organizational grading systems. The mindset of the person in the specific grade tends to feel or act that grade, while the people interacting with a specific grade of person tend to treat them according to their assigned grade. That's why TV programmes like 'Back to the Floor' are so much fun. See, for example, Peter Baker, Managing Director (MD) of British Bakeries, 'swapping the boardroom for a week of putting crosses on hot-cross buns, scooping up litres of garlic butter with his hands, and chanting business mantras in his Newcastle upon Tyne bakery'. If people don't know that the MD is the bakery worker they treat him/her as a bakery worker and not as an MD.

Grade level is (if well-earned and not a long-service award) an indicator of competence in a particular aspect of organizational skill that is valued more than another aspect. But the value system is an often unchallenged organizational aspect, and competence is situational (as MD v baker). Consider critical or strategic roles in an organization – the roles that done badly or left unfilled would jeopardize your organization's performance. Usually these are front line roles often interfacing directly with customers – call centre agents, or personal shoppers, baggage handlers or flight despatchers. None of these role holders are highly graded in an organization but all require highly competent and skilled people without whom the organization would flounder.

A focus on grade as an indicator of value or worth is demeaning. People are not gradable eggs. Their 'flavour' cannot be determined by their grade. Organizations that change their focus from grade to other indicators of value or worth – innovation, creativity, getting things done, showing initiative, for example – can do so within a flexible structure that recognizes that in any role the role-holder is at times (in Barry Oshry's thinking) a top, middle, bottom or customer. Grades may be helpful in determining something but they are not a necessary feature of organizations. Zappos, Valve, Gore, and Semco are four successful and focused companies often mentioned as exemplars of no grades and flexible structures. If they can do it so can others.

Do you think perceiving people through the lens of a grading system contributes to an organizational state of being at sixes and sevens? Let me know.