Powerful and Positive Exit Interviews

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When I left the company I had worked at since I was 16 years old I was asked to complete an exit interview. In talking with colleagues, I was advised to be careful in how I responded to the survey – I didn’t want to burn bridges in case I ever wanted to come back.

As I recall, the questions were pretty standard –

“Why are you leaving the company?

“What suggestions do you have to improve the company?

“Rate your supervisor on a scale of 1 to 10

In fact, most exit interviews follow a similar vein. The objective is to capture feedback from the exiting employee to potentially help the company make changes that will prevent others from leaving.

The fact that most organizations don’t really take exit interviews seriously, and don’t have a solid process to evaluate feedback and incorporate it into process improvement is concerning. In fact, a recent HBR article reports that “two-thirds of existing programs appear to be mostly talk with little productive follow-up.”

And part of problem is that we’re asking the wrong questions.

In the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) methodology, asking positive, powerful questions helps organizations discover strengths and uncover what the organization wants to see more of. The questions we ask move us in a certain direction. While it’s important to find out why someone has decided to leave and evaluate whether their feedback can help improve practices (like benefits, communication, career paths, etc.), I suggest that we start by considering more valuable questions.

The following questions are designed to lead us toward a more appreciative exit interview:

1.    Why did you start looking for a new job?

2.    What is a highlight of your experience with us?

3.    Thinking back to when you joined the company, what was it that got you to accept the offer?

4.    Have you accomplished what you had hoped to in your role?

5.    What opportunities do you see in the role you’re leaving?

6.    What skills and experience should we look for in your replacement?

7.    Tell me about the leadership and management experiences at this company. When did you feel you were being managed well? What experiences or interactions could have been improved?

8.    Describe the support you received here from your manager and others. Were you provided opportunities for learning and professional growth?

9.    Explain what it’s like to work at this company to someone considering a job offer here.

10. How do you compare our compensation and benefits package to the one you’ve accepted at your new company?

These questions will elicit more thoughtful and useful responses from exiting employees. The qualitative feedback may be harder to put into a pie chart, but provides valuable insights that can lead to positive change.

The HBR article mentioned earlier recommended moving execution of the exit interview process out of human resources into the front lines, which is more likely to lead to change. In addition, it’s recommended that a post-departure interview be conducted through a third-party (objective) consultant – which will lead to more honest answers.

Exit interviews should feel like a conversation, and the appreciative questions are intended to bring a sense of humanity to the process. Handing (or emailing) a 20-question survey to a departing employee, with static formality, is impersonal and disengaging. Face-to-face interviews with a direct manager (or one up), conducted in a conversational tone, expresses genuine interest in the exiting employee’s opinions and experiences.

To set the right tone, consider meeting away from the work area – such as in a cafeteria. A casual seating area is best, but definitely avoid sitting behind a desk. Know the questions well so you can easily navigate through them without it feeling like an interrogation.

As responses are collected, leaders need to process the feedback and seriously consider how to make positive change happen. While one exiting employee’s experiences may not be representative of the entire department or organization, they warrant some reflection and perhaps some specific observation, or additional feedback, of others in the organization.

Operational Excellence Reviews Pay for Themselves

OER logoIf you’ve found yourself asking, “why do we do that?” and no one seems to have an answer, your organization may benefit from an Operational Excellence Review.

An Operational Effectiveness Review (OER) is an intensive audit of processes, systems, and structures that aims to reduce waste, increase productivity, and positively impact the efficiency and effectiveness in an organization. OER’s can be done within a specific function, at the business unit level, or for the entire company.

Through a combination of job shadowing, data analysis, interviews, and focus groups, an OER uncovers roadblocks to performance and unleashes creativity and innovative solutions that don’t get attention during the routine of everyday work. Using lean six sigma methodologies, proven job design models, and systems thinking, an OER pays off big by freeing employees to do their jobs the best possible way.

An OER is an investment in your organization that has a high rate of return. Invariably, an operational audit leads to work simplification through elimination of non-value-adding tasks and activities. Additionally, an OER gives focus to process improvements by the people who perform the work, leading to sustained efficiencies over time.

OER’s done within human resource, training, and OD functions guarantee that business partners are getting what they need without a lot of fluff. The OER process forces functional areas to look in the mirror and ask, “are we doing our best?” Legacy programs, non-value add processes, and misaligned objectives are evaluated and replaced, tweaked, or enhanced through an OER, allowing for lean operation and better alignment with the organization’s strategy.

Because of the savings from streamlined processes, OERs pay for themselves and are a morale boost to your staff as they participate in making sense of the work they do.

Cornerstone Global Training & Performance Solutions provides experience and expertise to conduct an OER at the department, division or enterprise level. Find out more by email us at info@cornerstoneglobaltps.com.

Self-Solving Dynamics: No More Superhero Managers

super-managerDependence-Based Management

My office in the lower level of the department store was the first one in the executive office suite and I kept my door open most of the time because I had no windows. And as the head of HR, I was the one everyone came to with all kinds of issues, from advice on how to deal with an underperforming employee, to where to access keys to the storeroom. At the time, I was one of the most proficient with the new computers that were slowly taking traction, so I was also the Help Desk and printer-unjammer. I admit, there was a part of me that enjoyed being so important! They say knowledge is power, and as the one who interacted with virtually everyone and every aspect of the store, I knew a lot!

But I was finding myself working long hours to get all of my work done due to the constant interruptions. I’d shut my door for a while to have a few minutes of focus, but it wasn’t long before I heard a knock on my door, or sometimes a full-fledged barge-in, and I’d find myself shifting gears to help the person in front of me.

Often I would try to schedule time with the interrupter so that I could finish the task at hand, but that wasn’t always an easy solution, especially in a multi-shift, 7-days-a week retail environment. Something had to be done or I was always going to find myself behind on my work and resentful for the interruptions.

I began to switch my approach from giving the answer immediately and spending time explaining the details to asking questions to make the other person think through the options and the best course of action, or to discover their own solution. When employees came to me to complain about each other, I pushed the resolution back on them rather than solving things for them. I had to let go of that feeling of being “in charge” and pack up my superman cape (or at least hide it under my suit jacket!) and allow folks to think things through on their own.

At first it’s very difficult to resist the temptation to be the hero with a fix, or at least a scapegoat for those who don’t want the accountability of making a decision. I had to get used to making it their problem, not mine. And they had to get used to coming up with their own solutions.

Empowerment & Accountability

There is a need for empowerment and accountability in the way we lead staff. These are not new concepts, yet are often weakly applied by well-meaning or, sometimes, controlling managers who step in to direct the behaviors of their employees. Empowerment – putting the power to handle situations on another – means I have to release that power so that the other person can pick it up.

Accountability shifts the responsibility for outcomes to the right person(s). If a manager holds themselves accountable for solving interpersonal issues on the team, or directing day-to-day activities (a la micromanaging), then employees will never hold themselves accountable. So it requires that I, as a manager, change my mindset to place accountability with the individuals involved, whether the issue is communication, task performance, or tactical decision-making.

We know, logically, that empowerment and accountability make sense, but between our need to control, a mistrust of our staff, and a mindset that says, “it’s easier to do it myself,” we build dependence that is both time-consuming and debilitating to our direct reports.

Self-Solving Dynamics

The idea behind self-solving dynamics is to shift responsibility to the people impacted by the outcomes. Instead of the boss fixing problems from operational setbacks to interpersonal challenges, self-solving dynamics places the burden of a solution on the shoulders of those who identified the problem (or opportunity) in the first place.

Self-solving dynamics takes a commitment by management to resist the temptation to be a fixer and instead be an enabler. I don’t mean enabling in the negative sense of allowing codependent behaviors, but in the opposite sense of allowing independent behaviors that lead to self-efficacy. If we want a workplace in which individuals at all levels are cognitively engaged, applying their whole being to not only attain organizational objectives, but achieve personal fulfillment as well, we have got to let go and trust that people will figure it out.

Students of leadership will remember the Theory X and Theory Y models presented by Douglas McGregor. Theory X managers see followers as disliking work, avoiding responsibility, and need constant supervision. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, view followers as individuals who seek and accept responsibility and want to solve work problems imaginatively.

It requires a Theory Y leadership mindset to allow self-solving dynamics to flourish. But with a workforce that has been victimized by poor leadership and mistrust, it takes intentional commitment to training, coach, and developing followers to gain confidence and skill. It also requires managers to reflect on their management style and asking for feedback from colleagues and direct reports.

 

Self-Solving Dynamics Defined

Self-Solving Dynamics is the practice of shifting responsibility for solving problems in from the manager to those impacted.

Moving Toward Self-Solving Dynamics

To make the shift to self-solving dynamics requires a realization that followers have been conditioned to ask the boss to solve problems, especially interpersonal or inter-team problems, and that bosses, for a variety of reasons, have obliged. To make the shift…

  • Be aware of your tendency to solve problems for others, and the motivations behind those tendencies (power, self-importance, expediency).
  • Practice asking questions when people come to you for solutions, rather than jumping in immediately.
  • Be comfortable with mistakes; allow followers to learn by doing (just like you probably did!).
  • Be available for consultation, but leave the burden with the one(s) with a problem. Allow them to own the solution. Coach, but don’t solve for them!
  • Ask them to prepare a “lessons learned” summary, which will help them hone their self-solving skills and allow you to celebrate and coach more specifically.

So the next time an employee knocks on your door and wants you to solve a problem for them, tuck your superhero cape back inside your shirt and use the principles of self-solving dynamics to make them a superhero that can soar on their own!

 

Search & Sort: Tips for Putting Information Into Action

Screenshot 2015-07-29 06.59.02According to the philosopher and man of science of a century and a half ago, Herbert Spencer, “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” Ralph Waldo Emerson picks up on this thought, adding, “The ancestor of every action is a thought.” As we gather information to educate ourselves on a topic we ultimately aim to take action using this new-to-us knowledge.

Gathering information without the aim of putting it into action may be interesting, but certainly won’t lead to change.

But with the avalanche of information falling on us through a typical Google search, we quickly become buried in material. With pages and pages of results for our simple query there is no shortage of information – results abound! So we suffer from information overload, right?

Well, according to Clay Shirky, who writes and speaks on the effects of internet technology on society and economics, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” In fact, all of the futurists remind us that the amount of information available to us will continue to increase. More and more stuff will be added to the internet, so we have to improve our ability to find relevant information and be able to access that information quickly when we are ready to use it.

So before we can put information into action we have to gather it and store it or organize it. I think each of us has developed some good habits when it comes to accessing, storing and retrieving information. But I imagine we each have some gaps as well. And what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you, but maybe you’ve discovered something that hasn’t come my way yet.

The fact is – there are multiple answers to this conundrum of how to manage information so that we can put it into action later. So here are Todd’s Tips for Putting Information Into Action, categorized into phases of gathering, organizing, and retrieving.

Todd’s Tips for Putting Information into Action

Information Gathering

  • Go beyond Google!
    • Find credible sources and case studies through online journal databases using your public library card. Most libraries provide free access to EBSCO and other article databases from the convenience of your laptop.
    • Look at the references in that Wikipedia entry to see where they got the information. You may question the reliability of the Wiki entry, but often the summary is based on valid sources.
    • Use google.com to home in on deeper articles. It takes a little practice to get the most useful results, but you can often find really good full-text articles and e-books.
    • Another Google Chrome add-on, called Mya, is in beta testing right now. It allows users to search specific sites for topical information, then save results for later use.
  • Compare & contrast multiple sources. Don’t trust the first source you find – get different viewpoints and draw your own conclusions.
  • Books, articles and blogs are still great sources of information! Commit to reading non-digital sources regularly.
  • If you’re not sure where to start researching a topic, ask someone! If you don’t have anyone in your professional network to tap in to, LinkedIn groups are a good way to find practitioners and experts in just about any specialty. You can start a discussion and ask for responses, or search for people to connect with and send an InMail to.
    • If you use the Kindle app and highlight quotes, you can access all of your highlights using the My Notebook icon. If you use the desktop Kindle app you can copy & paste those quotes into a separate document and save it in your folder system.
    • Leverage social media. Many authors or professional groups have Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts, as well as blogs. Follow them for continuing discussion and research on topics of interest to you.

Storing & Retrieving Information

  • Consider going 100% digital.* Scan articles and training materials, type up notes from presentations as well as quotes from books. (A bonus of typing up notes & quotes is that your memory is aided by the process!)
  • The key is your folder and sub-folder system. Make it your own – only you need to know how to find things in your system, so do what makes sense to you.
  • Use Dropbox, Google Docs, or some other cloud-based system to store your information so that you can retrieve it from any device and any location.
  • Use bookmarks to sort searches and online finds. Most browsers allow you to save articles as PDFs, so you can easily add that online gem to your folder system.
  • Use tags for individual files to help making search more accurate a
  • When you “like” or retweet an article or other resource through social media, go the next step and save the item in PDF to the appropriate folder.
  • Evaluate your system from time-to-time and make tweaks – pay attention to the growing pile of paper resources and schedule time to scan.
  • Purge! That great article on new technology from 1993 may be an interesting historical record, but it’s cluttering up your files. Get rid of it!

*if you have file cabinets full of paper documents, take out one at a time and scan & file each item. It may take a while, but you’ll have all of those docs in one place, organized for easy access. Make sure your scanner can do optical character recognition (OCR), which makes the text searchable.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to gather and store information, but it should provide some food for thought as you consider how to collect and sort material. Keep in mind Shirky’s warning that it’s not information overload but failure to filter. If you’re getting too much clutter, evaluate what you actually use and remove what you don’t. That could mean unsubscribing to a newsfeed or blog, un-liking a Facebook page, or moving that pile of magazines to remove the guilt of not getting to them!

Putting information into action, then, means being able to access the material you’ve squirreled away quickly and efficiently.

When I am asked to deliver a presentation on change management I can go to my Research folder, open the Change management sub-folder, then see additional sub-folders labeled PowerPoints, Assessments, Theories & Models, and Handouts. I’m not spending hours searching for my stuff because it’s all at my fingertips.

NOTE: I can’t fully claim all the credit for the tips below; they come from a session I facilitated recently for the Omaha Organization Development Network. So thanks, colleagues, for your contributions!

  

Lean Performance Management: Moving Toward Peak Performance

What is lean?

The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.  -Lean Enterprise Institute (lean.org)

 

Lean manufacturing is a process improvement methodology based upon the highly acclaimed Toyota Production System (TPS).  The main focus in lean manufacturing is the removal of waste from a value stream. leanprocess.net

So, “lean” has to do with trimming away things that get in the way of optimal performance. Processes and practices often take on a life of their own over time, and before you know it you have a monster on your hands. Normally lean consultants (six sigma/process improvement) are brought in when performance has devolved to a state of crisis, but smart organizations engage lean principles as part of their business-as-usual operating culture.

Lean manufacturing is underpinned by 5 principles:

  • Specify what creates value from the customer’s perspective
  • Identify all the steps along the process chain
  • Make those processes flow
  • Make/offer only what is pulled by the customer
  • Strive for perfection by continually removing wastes

(http://www.leaningforward.co.uk/principles.htm)

Applying these lean processes to human performance creates a focus on productivity, quality, and customer satisfaction. Practicing lean in performance management enables peak performance and allows employees to focus on value-adding tasks.

Performance management is a structured process for setting expectations, identifying key performance indicators (metrics), measuring outcomes, and improving performance through accountability and feedback. Performance management is both a science and an art. Performance technology provides the framework to structure and analyze human performance, while emotional intelligence and relational skills ensure a sensitivity and empathy. A solely scientific approach is dehumanizing and detrimental to lasting performance change.

Specify what creates value from the customer’s perspective.  Job descriptions and performance accountability should place a priority on customer- facing behaviors. Identify how the role supports customer satisfaction, identify how the customer is impacted when the job is (and isn’t) done well, and tie performance metrics and rewards to those behaviors.

Identify all the steps along the process chain. A job-specific SIPOC will do the trick here. A SIPOC is a picture of Suppliers – Inputs – Processes – Outputs – and Customers surrounding a specific role or task. Identify how performance is impacted along the way, from when work is handed off from one role to another, and the interdependencies that may create roadblocks and inefficiencies.

Make those processes flow. Remove barriers to performance and hold employees accountable for keeping things flowing smoothly. Reward process improvements and build expectations for internal customer service. Create a culture that challenges the status quo in pursuit of optimized performance.

Make/offer only what is pulled by the customer. This is somewhat of a repeat of the first principle, but an additional point when it comes to performance improvement is to be aware of processes, and even positions, that don’t add value. Just because a position has always existed, or a form is always used, or a handoff has always been a part of the process, doesn’t mean it adds value. Go back to the analysis of what supports customer experience, and eliminate everything that gets in the way. This streamlines performance management by simplifying the focus to one thing: the customer.

Strive for perfection and continually removing waste.Perfection is a lofty goal, and probably not realistic. But striving for perfection, as elusive as it may be, keeps us focused on continuous improvement. Waste is anything that hinders peak performance: tasks and deliverables that don’t add value to the customer; missed opportunities to leverage resources; and systems that create more work than they’re worth.

Using the principles of “lean” to manage human performance ensures an emphasis on quality work that ties to the customer experience. The benefit of applying lean to performance management is that “fluff” (waste) is removed on the front end, through better performance planning, and on the back end as performance is evaluated for efficiency and effectiveness.

In an age where “doing more with less” is standard, eliminating non-value-adding tasks, systems, and processes means you can still expect high quality work even if you’re running with a smaller staff. If the reports are correct that most of us work far below capacity (50-70% by some accounts), then applying lean will help us move toward better time management, stronger accountability for the things that matter, and continuous improvement across the organization.

   

Process Excellence Essential to Success

You can have great products and great people in your organization, but without great processes, you may be missing opportunities and squandering resources. Process excellence doesn’t just happen, though, it requires intentional focus on evaluating and building processes throughout the organization; across the supply chain.

How we get things done in our organizations warrants the same level of attention as developing and marketing products and services. We wish that developing methods and procedures was a “one and done” endeavor, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve been working on an operational audit for a global financial services company that has been around for four decades. The pace is fast, change is constant, and competition is fierce.  In this environment, procedures and processes must be agile—there must be a constant review of how things are done, why they’re done, and who is doing them.

An Operational Effectiveness Review, whether conducted by internal or external resources, should be a regularly scheduled event in every organization. Trained experts in process improvement and organizational effectiveness can provide insight into the best way to perform a task, technology that can provide automation (and reduce human error), and organizational design that will ensure information and work flow smoothly up and down the supply chain.

The outcomes of an OER will vary depending on several factors, such as how well processes are currently documented; how many tasks are performed within each function, and what technologies are currently in use. There are, however, some outcomes that are common no matter the size or scope of the effort in your organization:

  1. A short list of process improvements that can be implemented quickly and easily (low hanging fruit).
  2. Significant cost-saving (or revenue-generating) improvements that may take longer to implement or require a budgetary commitment.
  3. Long-term solutions, such as implementing new technology to streamline a process, or adding a position to eliminate a bottle-neck to a process.

One of the greatest aspects of an Operational Effectiveness Review is that subject matter experts—those employees who do the job day-in and day-out—already have ideas for improvements. The OER resources help build on those ideas and provide the expertise to implement them well.

Process excellence leads to better efficiency and effectiveness, key ingredients to overall organizational success. And an OER ensures excellent processes and addresses the need to evolve the way things are done within your company as internal and external circumstances change and new technologies are made available.

   

 

PLEASE MIND THE GAP

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If you’ve ever been to London and traveled on the tube (underground subway) you’ve heard the phrase “please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”  It’s a reminder that there is either some separation or a step up or down that could trip you up and cause harm.

I chose this ubiquitous phrase as the theme for my blog on performance management (www.CreativeGapMinding.com) because it’s a fitting reminder that there is often a gap between what we are currently experiencing and what is possible, and that there are dangers to not minding these gaps.

KNOWING THE GAPS

Minding the gap means not just watching for the dangers, but preparing for them…minding them. Minding a gap means proactively keeping it before us and not haphazardly walking through the terrain of our workplaces.  Mindfulness is a choice to open our eyes to what’s happening around us – to take everything in consciously and with a determination to remove the blinders that so often keep us from the levels of success that are possible.

A gap is anything that could get in the way of achieving goals; missed opportunities, unrecognized threats, inefficiencies that create waste.

TOOLS FOR MINDING THE GAPS

There are countless tools that help identify gaps. Here’s a handful that I like to use…

1.   SWOT Analysis: The SWOT is a tried-and-true tool used around the globe. Even a cursory use of a SWOT can identify things that should be considered. The SWOT’s four quadrants: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, can lead to further exploration of gaps that exist, either in a positive sense (Strengths/Opportunities), or n a cautionary sense (Weaknesses/Threats).

2.   Five Why’s: Another simple tool is Five Why’s, which seeks to get to root causes of issues. Start with the surface symptom that reveals a missed opportunity or shortfall, then keep asking why that behavior or condition exists until you’ve discovered the source(s) of the gap.

3.   Root Cause of Success Analysis: We are used to looking for the root causes of problems, but rarely take time to consider the actions and decisions that lead to success. Take the fishbone (Ishikawa) diagram, and instead of starting with a problem statement, begin with an identified success. Identify all of the systemic factors (people, technology, policies, management, etc) that contributed to the success. You may identify gaps or opportunities that will take things to the next level.

4.   Appreciative Questioning/Future Search. Appreciative Inquiry and Future Search are similar tools that build on organizational strengths and successes and uses positive questions to imagine the desired future together. Getting representation from all stakeholder groups to contribute stories of when they have felt empowered and engaged in the organization unlocks a powerful dialogue that uncovers opportunities and addresses unseen gaps between stakeholder groups.

 

Become a gap-minder by focusing on the difference between today’s reality – those things that you know could be better – and what is possible. Many companies find themselves dinged up from their lack of minding the gaps, but paying attention to the risks and possibilities before you trip can mean higher levels of success and a more engaged and satisfied work culture.

   

OD-Jobs: Organizational Development is Everyone’s Job

building togetherWhat is Organizational Development?

Organizational Development, or OD, is hard to define. Ask a dozen people and you’ll get 15 answers! To most professionals, OD encompasses change management, organizational culture, leadership development, and organization structure. I’ve worked in organizations that use the term organizational development as an aggrandized term for training.

OD practitioners will argue that their work centers on planned change efforts intended to improve productivity through cultural initiatives such as employee engagement, process improvement and effective performance management. The international Organization Development Network defines OD as

an effort (1) planned, (2) organization-wide, and (3) managed from the top, to (4) increase organization effectiveness and health through (5) planned interventions in the organizations “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge.

Matt Minahan, current board co-chair of ODN, defines the field a little more clearly…

“Organization Development is a body of knowledge and practice that enhances organizational performance and individual development, viewing the organization as a complex system of systems that exist within a larger system, each of which has its own attributes and degrees of alignment. OD interventions in these systems are inclusive methodologies and approaches to strategic planning, organization design, leadership development, change management, performance management, coaching, diversity, and work/life balance.”

Organizational Development is Everyone’s Job

When this list is viewed in light of the day-to-day operations within an organization, it is possible to see how everyone in the organization carries the responsibility of OD. Since we are all part of the complex system that makes up the organization, our role is to either maintain or influence to ensure forward momentum and effective operation.

As an individual contributor I participate in organizational development by either complying with processes or challenging them to ensure they are effective. I manage my performance, respond to coaching, and openly communicate ideas and concerns.

If I actively contribute and challenge in a sincere and positive manner, I expect to be heard and valued as a member of the system. This requires a management philosophy that not only seeks out staff participation, but is not threatened by unsolicited feedback that questions management decisions. This level of transparency and vulnerability is possible when humility permeates the organization. This, of course, is easier said than done, since we have a strong tendency to self-promotion and self-protection, both of which make it difficult to accept criticism without defensiveness.

Culture Shift is Happening

I believe organizations are gradually learning that there is a great benefit to employing the whole person, not just the part of the individual that aligns with the job description they were hired to fill. A whole-person mindset in an organization allows for full engagement, nurturing innovation, and sharing ownership of the organization’s success at all levels.

When individuals are fully engaged, they look for ways to improve, they lead change efforts rather than waiting to be told what to do, and they feel like what they are doing is significant. While I see things moving in this direction, I know it is a difficult transformation. The forces that are pushing for this type of change encounter resistance from the forces of power and control.

Organizational Development Utopia

I have identified a few things that an organization can do to build the type of full-engagement culture where everyone takes responsibility for organizational development.

First, I believe it takes a process of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I know these concepts are not associated with corporate culture, but they should be. Management needs to come clean about how they have focused more on outcomes than people. Employees have been used, abused, and threatened into performance. At best, this has resulted in either mediocrity or short-lived peaks followed by valleys of burnout and performance rebellion. Employees must confess that they have often withheld their best thoughts and energy in response to their perceptions of management manipulation.

Second, organizations have to rethink processes, especially the conduits of communication. Ruts and grooves are formed over time as the same path is taken over and over again, but our desire for order and predictability may be leading us to a grave, not a garden of opportunity. We must regularly evaluate how we’re doing things and listen to voices of the processes, our people, and the customer and be open to rethinking our strategies.

Third, organizations must forego expediency for wisdom. Executives pride themselves on making quick decisions, believing that their experience and knowledge alone ensure their decisions are the best. But no amount of experience can take in the sage advice of stakeholders up and down stream. Sustainability and maturity come through listening and wisdom, not expeditious control.

Fourth, build on successes and use an asset-based mindset. We like to be seen as problem solvers. With hammers in hand, we hunt for nails that need to be pounded back into place, but maybe that’s not the most productive use of our time. Instead, perhaps the more beneficial approach is to take the time to look at the abundance we’ve created as an organization and focus our attention on harvesting more of that success. In other words, we can choose to see our workplaces as rife with fires to be extinguished, or places of great wealth that needs to be invested.

Finally, creating a fully-engaged workforce requires investment in developing skills, in expanding the world for team members. Tunnel vision occurs when we fail to look beyond our own workplace to see what is going on beyond our virtual walls. Employees should be actively involved in professional organizations and accountable for introducing new ideas into the organization.

I have labeled these five cultural imperatives as utopian because, as optimistic as I am, I know about human nature. When things are going well we will commit to a positive plan of action, building teams and putting money into developing people in our organizations. But as soon as challenges, like a major economic crisis, come our way, we throw development out the window and adopt a command and control management style.

Our half-hearted commitment to doing the right thing perpetuates mediocre organizational life where positive development and effective leadership are hit and miss. This inconsistency causes confusion, disillusionment, and self-limiting behaviors. We can’t afford this approach any more. As companies like Google, SAS, Zappos, QuickTrip, TD Industries and W.L. Gore have discovered, it’s possible to focus on people and profits at the same time. A concentration on one does not preclude the development of the other. It takes enlightened executives willing to forego business as usual to create a culture of full engagement and mutual ownership for organizational development.

The Joy of Positive Deviance

I first heard the term positive deviance when I read Kim Cameron’s thin volume, Positive Leadership. I immediately loved the term for its irony, its spin on what we normally think of as deviant behavior. The idea that we can become positively deviant by breaking the norm and surpassing expectations appeals to the dreamer in me.

Deviant comes from the Latin “de” – from, and “via” – road. So deviance refers to being off the beaten path. It is out of the norm, forging a new path where none exists. While some who live off the main road are robbers and malcontents, others are trail-blazers, dreamers…positive deviants.

Gretchen Spreitzer of the University of Michigan and Scott Sonenshein from Rice University clarify what is meant by positive: “By positive we mean honorable behaviors that improve the human condition.” Honorable is a carefully chosen term that reflects the above-and-beyond nature of the deviant behavior that others would label honorable.

Shawn Achor, a trail-blazer in the emerging study of positive psychology, is intrigued by the positive outliers- those who are out of the norm because they chose to push through when the odds were against them, went a little further than what was considered safe, and changed the lens through which they viewed the world.

Achor says to focus “on your own lens and how you can ripple that positivity out through your work, your personality and your habits to create a more positive work environment.” we can cultivate our positive deviance by becoming more aware of possibilities and opening our eyes to limiting mindsets.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship is the hub for research in how to apply positive psychology in our organizations. Researchers like Kim Cameron, Robert Quinn, and Jane Dutton are involved in the application of POS in the real world.

In the organizational context the positive deviant challenges the status quo. Fired by a vision of what could be…what ought to be…the positive deviant swims upstream. What I learned (the hard way) is that the successful positive deviant builds coalitions whenever possible. We swim alone if we have to, compelled by a vision of what could be. But creating ripples of influence within our informal and formal networks creates energy and critical mass.

As I considered how positive deviance applied to my own field of performance Improvment, I discovered that much performance intervention is based on ambition and individual power. To introduce positive deviance requires a shift in the philosophical starting point to performance analysis from ambition to investment.

As a performance investor I become a steward of a higher purpose within the organization. I see the positive core that each individual brings to the team as well as the collective positive core. My focus shifts from problems to possibilities and I invest my time and talent to raise the success quotient so that everyone wins.

I know positivity can come across as a “peace, love and harmony” approach that has no place in the rough and tumble world of organizational politics and a driving sense of urgency. It does require a shift in ones mindset to replace the ambition-based push with an investment-based influencing conviction.

Becoming a positive deviant in any organization requires a commitment to long-term influence as it takes time to build coalitions and work the social networks. It requires determination to continue making the investment of time, energy, and personal gain for the future success of individuals and the organization.

Investment-Based Performance Improvement

I am a certified performance technologist (CPT). What in the world does that mean? According to the International Society for Performance Improvement, a CPT has proven the ability to apply the ten competencies of human performance improvement in a way that makes a positive performance difference to an organization. Don’t worry, this post is not going to be a shameless self-promotion. I want to focus on my approach to performance improvement and how I’ve shifted my focus from ambition to investment.

First, an overview of the competencies of human performance improvement (HPI):

The 10 Standards of Performance Technology, which are based on four principles and following a systematic process to improve performance, ensure that the Certified Performance Technologist has conducted his or her work in a manner that includes the following:

  • Focus on results and help clients focus on results.
  • Look at situations systemically taking into consideration the larger context including competing pressures, resource constraints, and anticipated change.
  • Add value in how you do the work and through the work itself.
  • Utilize partnerships or collaborate with clients and other experts as required.
  • Systematic assessment of the need or opportunity.
  • Systematic analysis of the work and workplace to identify the cause or factors that      limit performance.
  • Systematic design of the solution or specification of the requirements of the      solution.
  • Systematic development of all or some of the solution and its elements.
  • Systematic implementation of the solution.
  • Systematic evaluation of the process and the results.

Performance improvement, when done with these standards in mind, can be a powerful tool in any organization.  Any time an individual or work group applies a systematic, intentional process to making things better, the results can be like compounding interest in a savings account, leading to great gains over time. The practice of performance technology is a focused effort to innovate solutions to systemic challenges.

Why Your Approach to Performance Improvement Matters

I want to contrast ambition-based performance improvement and investment-based performance improvement.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives three definitions for Ambition:

  1. an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power b: desire to achieve a particular end
  2. the object of ambition <her ambition is to start her own business>
  3. a desire for activity or exertion <felt sick and had no ambition>

All of these uses of the word ambition center around an individual trying to get his or her way. Ambition is self-promoting. The original usage applied to those going around town to solicit votes for election. So if I initiate a performance improvement effort from an ambitious mindset, I am first looking at my own rank, power, and ability to influence others to my way of thinking.

Investing, on the other hand, focuses on what I can give to another, making them the center of attention rather than myself. Here’s what Merriam-Webster provides as definitions for Invest:

  1. [Medieval Latin investire, from Latin, to clothe] a: to array in the symbols of office or honor b: to furnish with power or authority c: to grant someone control or authority over : vest
  2. to cover completely : envelop
  3. clothe, adorn
  4. [Middle French investir, from Old Italian investire, from Latin, to surround]: to surround with troops or ships so as to prevent escape or entry
  5. to endow with a quality : infuse

I like the picture that we get from the first usage above: to array in the symbols of office or honor. It ties to the idea of empowerment and equipping people with the tools and structures to succeed in their work. I am a strong believer in servant leadership, which fits perfectly with an investment-based performance improvement methodology.

Investment-based performance improvement has four distinct characteristics:

  1. Humility
  2. Humor
  3. Harmony
  4. Honor

These 4 H’s, when used in conjunction with the competencies of performance technology, create an environment where individuals work collectively for the good of the organization while building one another up.

Let’s take a look at each of the characteristics.

Humility.

We don’t talk much about humility in the workplace. Our western culture views humility as a weakness, something that gets in the way of ambition. Many view humility as unrealistic in the cut-throat world of the marketplace where it’s “eat or be eaten.” But humility is making a resurgence in the marketplace. Good guys (and gals) really can finish first.

Humility breaks down barriers of communication, disarms individuals from protecting their territory, and allows us to listen. When we are driven by ambition, we cannot hear what is being said because we are always looking to promote ourselves and our solutions. But with humility I can truly listen, truly desire to hear, and see where the insight emerges, even if it doesn’t originate with me.

Humor.

It may seem odd to make humor a characteristic of investing, but it makes such a big difference that it warrants an honored place as an essential element in working with others toward common goals. When I say humor, I am not talking about sarcasm, jokes, or laughing at the mistakes or shortcomings of others. Instead, humor as an investment gives us perspective. It is the ability to look at a ridiculous situation and see it as it is – a case of human reality at its finest and most sublime.

Many of us have lost our sense of humor in the workplace. We have become cynics or comics, but have no good humor that allows things to slide. We are quickly offended, proud of our fast retorts, and use humor to tear others down to make ourselves look better. But humor as an investment intentionally laughs at challenges, sees the irony and chooses to smile instead of lash out, and promotes light-heartedness over criticism or caustic remarks.

Harmony.

Harmony embraces diversity, especially cognitive diversity where we bring together different perspectives, unique insights, and approaches to situations that may be foreign to our own experience or preference. Harmony as a performance investment looks to blend ideas from multiple sources into one beautiful arrangement that is infinitely more than anyone single individual could accomplish.

To create a harmonious workplace requires that we look at each individual and learn to appreciate what they bring to the party. We have a tendency within our human nature to look for homogeneity – we immediately seek out those who are like us. It makes us feel comfortable, part of the group. But diversity is all around us, and we must promote harmony through building rapport with those who see things differently, looking for areas of agreement, but mostly striving to appreciate their point of view and working to integrate the best from all sources.

Honor.

The final characteristic of investment-based performance improvement is honor. Honor and harmony are kindred spirits, since honoring someone can lead to harmony. But I keep honor as a distinct characteristic because of its importance as a mindset toward other people. Honor has to do with “a showing of usually merited respect.” When we honor someone, we hold them in high regard. We see them as a person of value, worthy of investment.

In another sense of the word, we consider it an honor to work with certain people, or to be recognized by them. When it comes to investing in someone else, to make their ability to perform at their peak level, we should consider it an honor. That person may be on a different level in a corporate hierarchy, but if we choose to see it as a privilege to assist them in their success, our ambition takes a back seat.

Investment-based performance improvement, using the 4 H’s as the philosophical starting point, sparks a positive change in the workplace. Whether a certified performance technologist, a supervisor working with a team of customer service reps, or vice president of national sales, you are making an investment in the lives of others. Ambition has its place, but when our ambition centers on our own power, glory, and advancement we quickly become blind to how investing in the performance of others raises all of us to a higher level. When you raise others up, you go a little higher yourself, but then you realize that isn’t really what it’s all about after all.

For more about Human Performance Technology and the Certified Performance Technologist designation, visit the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). If you decide to join, make sure you list me as the one who referred you!