Some organizational analysts claim that modern business organizations can trace their structure and functional arrangement from army models. The command and control structures of the battlefield were, they argue, the genesis of office roles, definitions of general responsibilities and standards of “appropriate” performance. In this view, “leadership,” “teams,” “tasks,” “directions,” and “objectives” may better reflect models from some time ago than the actual needs of today’s office environment. Managers in these sorts of structures might say that “objectives” are achieved by managing “resources” through to defined “deliverables,” or, a bunch of deliverables adds up to a job done. This is the “San Juan Hill” school of management.
These models are hierarchical, and in them the person on top is the only one with “the big picture.” He or she knows what needs to be done, and issues whatever directions are needed. Most of what he or she is responsible for is delegated down, down, down – even to the person on the loading dock, who is responsible for moving consumables in and finished product out. And the person on the loading dock – often a vast storehouse of knowledge about what’s happening – never talks to anyone on mahogany row. Processes in such traditional organizational scenarios are mechanistic and not reciprocal. They blend the rigid formality of the military organization with the work-by-rote and production quota values of the assembly line. These organizations abhor employee empowerment, lateral relationships, the development of intellectual capital, collective decision-making and change. They are anti-innovation, going always with what they call the “trusted and true,” as they are very afraid of the unknown and new. They rarely challenge fundamental assumptions around the enterprise. The “truths” are held to be self evident, even when they are not at all well known.
Some of these organizations are either unwilling or unable to articulate their real values and purposes. Even defining what business they are in can be challenging to put down on paper. An assumed truth is that the leaders know all that is of value, while employees know only what they need to know. Chances are neither is really accessing, and using even the minimum information needed for fully effective operations. As there is no knowledge pool, and as the organization is not learning, there is a great deal of repetitive (and cyclical) behaviour: values and missions (or just the rules) are recited as mantras. Management may believe that the answer to every question can be found somewhere in policies and procedures. Some spend a lot of time looking for them. Front line workers struggle daily to establish connections between internal structures and processes (many of which are disconnected) with what they are seeing and experiencing in the marketplace. When they see their organization is out of step, they are either powerless, or simply unmotivated, to do anything about it. Those who dare to suggest or actually make changes may be disciplined. This is not a workplace that generates, or mobilizes new ideas. Sustainability cannot be assured in such situations.
Other organizational analysts view this model as an “idealization” of reality – not in the sense of “best” but in the sense that it is what someone imagines it must or should be like. They say that actual models are really quite different. They point to the existence in most organizations of a business process “underground,” where a lot of the decisions are made, and a lot of the work gets done. Circum-navigating obsolete or just plain troublesome structures and barriers, these people “get on with it.” Some initiatives, and some actual events might even be career threatening for initiators or participants. Corporate policy may be violated. A corner may be cut. A particular chain of command or office might be avoided. Evidently those who take such risks feel it is worth it for the good of the organization or perhaps they just like living dangerously.
Savvy managers – who do understand that high performance and radical change and adaptability are needed to remain competitive in a global economy, seek out these process entrepreneurs and reward them. They understand that it is quite acceptable for an organization to have two org charts: the one we show the shareholders, and the one that shows us inside how things really work. They know that the underground is often the lifeblood of the organization, interfered with at their peril. They understand that there is no inherent value in rules. In the new economy, one establishes rules only where they are essential to effective operations. When they are no longer essential, they are discarded.
Elements of my preamble scenario may seem harsh. But many organizations face, every day, these sorts of tug of war games between deemed “ideals” and “actuals.” Energies are exhausted in arguments between what is, what must be and what should be. Issue resolution may depend more on position and strength than the merits of the case. While this is unhealthy, the implications are far worse when managers do not even know there is an organizational underground. In such cases, rather than exploiting those who are cunning and efficient, they frustrate them unknowingly by “plugging gaps,” or “tightening processes,” or “beefing up the reporting system.” The “above ground” and the “below ground” are very different environments and they demand very different treatment. Top-down, broad-brush arbitrary directions that impact all organizational levels could stifle a staid organization’s one real hope for evolution, as workers give up, or get out.
I would argue that in organizational dynamics, the form of the organization does not really matter a whole lot. I believe that if management and its workforce are committed to getting on with the job, they will work with, work around, or get rid of structures and strictures. Such people are not “married” to existing or past practices or formal relationships. In their business world-view, they like what works. Like the inventor who described herself as “just lazy – that’s why I keep inventing labour saving devices” – they want the organization to have an organic and rhythmic hum – meeting the basics while allowing everyone to get on with the real business. And the real business? It is improvement. This is the sort of thing that the organization wants in its mission statement. And such mission statements really need a lot of work to get them right. Often they are far too high level or generic, rendering them as meaningless drivel that is just unachievable, or otherwise untranslatable into appropriate activity. Others are far too low level, mechanical, task or product oriented – with no value elements.
There is a raison d’etre for visions and missions. Fundamentally, how can an organization function in any coherent and predictable way unless there is a shared vision? Members of an organization – no matter how loosely constituted – must have some level of agreement about what they are doing. How, in a complex or fast paced organization, can people make the right decisions on their own, unless the corporate vision is well internalized? We know that soldiers and police officers need such training. That is why they spend hours on firing ranges learning to make instant judgements between “friend” and “foe.” See a friend, hold your fire or support. See a foe, shoot or capture. Without this sort of training, without shared values, rules, roles and objectives you have an organization of independent actors making arbitrary decisions, or none at all.
Organizations with good, solid values are dedicated to quality operations, quality relationships and quality services. They believe in fair exchanges – that one should receive as good as, or better than one pays for. Visionary organizations believe that the next time the customer comes back, he will be even more pleased. What they work for is the realization of continuous improvement. Can an organization – hierarchical or flat – ever do a credible job and move forward, if it is only the head that knows what’s going on, what quality means, and where the organization is headed? Diamond cutters need both theory and practice, but where is the real talent of the cutter? Is it in the brain, in the hands or in the eye? If you were handing the largest diamond ever discovered to a cutter you would not, we think, want to restrict the talents in any way. Why should our business organizations be any different? Why do we not want to have all of the skills available and applied to the task at hand (which is, as we said, improvement)?
The explanation, for even value-based enterprises, may be a result of inadequacies in the organizational vision. It is not enough to know that “we are all going to do a better job next year!” Workers need understandable and achievable goals. Management needs goals crafted within a comprehensive, business and customer based vision. Which comes first? Should it be bottom-up or top-down (as the age old process question asks)? In a quality organization the answer, is neither. Goals definition and goals operationalization are enterprise activities. Management may incite, but the workforce will ignite (or defuse). Management does have a discreet job to perform within this model of sustainable organizations. As they are the ones who are held accountable – by their stockholders, customers or spouses and children – for profit and continuance, it is up to them to design the flag and wave it. It is they who choose the targets, the broad strategies and the key work assignments.
Senior management’s job is achieving victory. They have an extremely difficult task. But they do not do it alone. They are the ones who – working with the values based organization that they have nurtured – channel ambitions and energies, while applying liberal amounts of grease to the skids (while kicking the fallen trees off the tracks). It is not management’s job to be a repository of reasons why something should not be done. It is management’s job to guide and inspire, to know what high performance is and how it is achieved and sustained. It is the employee’s job to commit to the corporate vision, to work to change it, or to move on. In such an enterprise, “victory” is not an elusive dream. It is part of the corporate reality. In “victorious organizations,” the underground is of little significance. Because the workforce is powerful and empowered, it does not need subversion to succeed. It has institutionalized the system fixer, the problem solver and the customer server as champions of the organization. And it rewards them appropriately.
[This essay is by a management consultant, author and media-savvy commentator. His published work includes numerous articles on governance, general management, Knowledge Management and strategic planning. See his major work, The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War for a thorough examination of the issue of conflict as a counter-productive organizational activity, based on ancient Chinese principles and practices from 2300 years ago.]