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Organisational Solutions that don’t work


Mike WestwoodThe following feature is contributed by Mike Westwood of training organisation Ambit. This is the second of four feature articles and this one urges managers to involve people in any change processes.

Something’s wrong
You recognise that things aren’t right in your organisation. The evidence is there – maybe dwindling market share or rising costs or drop in revenue. These figures you can calculate precisely. But the root cause of your problems and the actions needed are less precise. “What the hell’s going on?” demand senior management. “Sort it out!”

And what happens next? Usually, management provide a solution. After all, that’s what they’re there for – make quick decisions, talk tough, impose solutions. Oh dear, oh dear – If only they asked more questions and listened more, their organisations would be in better health.

It is the very culture of the organisation perpetuated by top management that is the reason why management find it so difficult to analyse the situation and come up with a meaningful response. Ask a fish what it thinks of its water and the fish will say: “Water? What’s water?”

Unfortunately, an incapacity to determine the root cause of organisational problems does not prevent management from implementing solutions.

A communication strategy
The first solution to come out (and fail) is a communication strategy.

Top management realise there are many layers between them and most of their staff. In an attempt to communicate directly with everyone right down to the bottom, they commission a video of the key company messages. The most photogenic and genial Director is chosen. He is instructed to act earnest and sincere.

The simplest format is an opening shot of the company logo followed by a picture of the front door accompanied by a piece of music. The Director then speaks to the camera direct, earnestly and sincerely.

But those organisations that are truly serious about this initiative, add a few action shots of hard-working staff who look happy, key messages from senior bods and finish off with an in-depth interview with the CEO. This interview is presented in the format of a chat show, with the CEO in a casual shirt doing something recognisably human like drinking coffee. The “interviewer” primes the CEO with comments like: “It must be really time consuming to run such a large organisation.” Or they ask questions such as “Tell us your vision for the future.”

The first impact of these videos is to squeeze out middle management. This initiative just chops the legs off a whole swathe of vitally important people. They haven’t been consulted about the messages, yet are expected to support the points championed by their masters.

The second impact of these videos is amongst the staff. They have always believed that senior managers were distant and aloof, it’s part of the accepted corporate culture – many of us have to be down here, while some of you are up there. But a communication strategy does more than confirm this accepted picture; it shows that those upstairs haven’t the foggiest what’s going on and have lost both the plot and their marbles.

The appraisal system
The second strategy that management pursue in an effort to Gain Control is an appraisal system.

This is one of the most difficult things to get right, even in happy circumstances, and it is likely to fail for numerous reasons. Primarily, it fails because, like the communications strategy, it is imposed from the top. It is yet more control exerted downwards. Most appraisal systems say: this is how the organisation expects you to behave, how do you match up?

Another reason for failure is that an appraisal system is implemented by a staff function rather than a line function. The initiative may come from the top, but it is introduced by HR. Again, middle management is excluded. Line managers – the people who are directly responsible for making the appraisal system work – have not been consulted. Those who want to get on with their urgent and important tasks, now have to go to briefings to be told what the forms mean and then attend training courses where they will be motivated to use them.

On the other hand, it does give HR something to do, which some people might consider is a benefit.

Performance management
More recently, organisations have taken their flagging appraisal system and rebadged it as Performance Management.

People cannot be fooled. They see it as yet another downward imposition with even tighter controls. Dressing it up with a fancy name does not disguise top management’s attitudes – them and us, more for less.

And then, just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, Performance Management is linked to Performance Related Pay (PRP). The focus of PRP is too often on what people produce, not who they are.

One company I worked in introduced Performance Management and PRP and supported the initiative with a handsome manual. Sections included guidance on appraisals, setting objectives and performance improvement. The start of every section reminded people that the objective of Performance Management and PRP is to get “better results from the organisation” which will ensure the “Group’s ability to gain and maintain competitive advantage.” Nowhere, in over 200 pages, absolutely nowhere does it mention the development of the individual.

When all else fails
When all else fails, build a new organisational structure.

If you’re really unlucky, this will be labelled BPR and will be performed by a powerful consultancy. Whatever it may be called it is driven by people who lack an understanding of the situation and who will be unaffected by the outcome.

And what is the outcome? The culture remains the same and one inflexible structure is swapped for another. Senior managers swap chairs. Units may change their names, but they are still stovepipes and silos. And yet again, middle management are bypassed and the troops embittered.

The reason for failure
The underlying reason for the failure of these initiatives is this: people are not involved. They are told, not asked. And if they are not involved, they won’t be committed.

You must ask those nearest to the issues, because only they know what it’s really like. And, when you have asked them, you must listen to the answers. This does not mean nodding and grunting and then making a decision yourself.

The listening organisation is a dynamic and learning organisation. At the top of this sort of organisation are senior managers who recognise that people want to get on and do a good job. They find out what is required and put in place structure and support that enables people to perform.

Ambit is a training organisation whose aim is to work with clients to develop individuals and teams, to solve performance problems, focus staff, and drive through major change.

2 Responses

  1. Managerialism lives
    Why do managers think they should have total control and make all the running when the manager’s role is by its very nature reactive? It is usually the staff who laboriously put corporate and business plans together, only to see them abandoned at the first crisis by managers grabbing for quick fixes. Yet it is the staff who have to put up with “re-structures”, performance management, quick’n’easy training solutions etc. Let’s see some incisive appraisal of management performance.

  2. listen, and then … what?
    I’ve always wondered what surrounds the prescription “listen to those nearest the issues”. Who determines which “issues” are the ones that should be attended to? Who determines who should listen and who should be listened to? Who determines who should determine who should listen etc? And so on. Once whoever should listen has listened, what do they do then? Don’t you find it spooky that the listening prescription has been around for years but the state of the art of organisational change has barely been scratched!


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