Speed the what

I subscribe to number of email updates – each day of the week I get around 45 – they’re from various organizations I visit on my travels through the internet in the course of my work.  In a way, they’re like ‘the olden days’ postcards, friendly reminders of what’s happening from a different part of the world in that moment and many of them pique my interest.

Yesterday I got one from ‘The Ready’.  I was immediately intrigued by their listing of Yves Morieux’s ‘TED talk on how an overload of rules, processes and metrics prevents us from doing our best work.’

It’s a topic that I’m working on and I’d already spent an hour or so reviewing an organizational policy,.  As an antidote I listened to Morieux’s view.   He boldly tells us that:

 ‘the holy trinity of efficiency: clarity, measurement, accountability. They make human efforts derail.’ He makes the strong point that ‘All the human intelligence put in organization design — urban structures, processing systems — what is the real goal? To have somebody guilty in case they fail. We are creating organizations able to fail, but in a compliant way, with somebody clearly accountable when we fail. And we are quite effective at that — failing. … And as performance deteriorates, we add even more structure, process, systems. People spend their time in meetings, writing reports they have to do, undo and redo.’

 And so on.  You get the picture.   (See the Bain brief ‘Four paths to a focused organization’ for a similar perspective).

 As an alternative to clarity, measurement, and accountability which lead to organizational failure (in his view), he offers ‘co-operation’.  He proposes that where it is in people’s personal interest to cooperate then they will do so.  In situations where clarity, accountability and measurement focus on individual performance they will not co-operate. He urges us to:

‘Remove the interfaces, the middle offices – all these complicated coordination structures. Don’t look for clarity; go for fuzziness. Fuzziness overlaps. Remove most of the quantitative metrics to assess performance. Speed the “what.’

 His analogy was a relay race and passing the baton.

I was quite taken with this thinking – in any business process flow the handover points are the most vulnerable to failure.  I run a whole masterclass on boundaries and linkages at handover points – the baton passing moment in a relay race.  It started me wondering if it was a workable analogy that I could use.

It turns out that ‘the relay race is often won in the exchange zones, so drills to increase a team’s baton-passing efficiency are vital to success in the sprint relay.’ That sounds sensible and translatable into an organizational context.  As I just said, in organizations, it’s at the handover points – between parts of organizations, between IT systems, between in-tray and next-step that things go wrong.

Knowing that the handover points are vulnerable is the first step to making them less so – in relay circles by having coaches who ‘select their relay runners with an eye for athletes who can exchange the baton smoothly, and at full speed, in addition to being strong sprinters.  Then the coach must train the team, through its drills, to hone its passing technique into a smooth-running operation.’

Additionally the team must know the rules of the race e.g. the baton has to be passed within the yellow ‘exchange’ box, and the terms of optimum co-operation e.g. runners have to agree the handoff process.They also have to practice, practice, practice.  Even so there can be mistakes and errors which they use to learn from, without blaming an individual.

Translating the relay race to an organizational context suggests that to get good handovers we need to work on:

  1. Having and developing a very highly skilled workforce with each person being able and willing to be a fully contributing team member, to be coached for improvement, and to have the capacity to keep on practicing ways and means of improving, especially at the handovers.
  2. Introducing and maintaining a reward system that develops and sustains co-operation, trust and a collective aim for excellence (rather than individual competitiveness) both at the handover points and along the value chain or process cycle.
  3. Being clear and simple on the rules, measures and accountabilities of co-operation.  Here I disagree with Morieux’s video statement, ‘Don’t look for clarity; go for fuzziness. Fuzziness overlaps. Remove most of the quantitative metrics to assess performance.’  Relay teams and team members are clear on what they have to do, they are assessed on performance, and they are accountable for both their individual and their collective actions.

I do go along with his underlying premise that in many organizations the reporting and compliance requirements mean that ‘employees are often misdirected and expend a lot of effort in vain.’ And on this, in a different article,  Morieux offers six rules to reduce complexity and encourage co-operation.

Do you think that handover points are the vulnerable ones in organizations?  If so, how would you design them to work?  Let me know.

Image: Relay race