The secret to high-performance organizations

We develop our bad habits in good times and our good habits in bad times

Doug Williamson: The secret to high performance organizationsThe preponderance of environment news in the media today started me thinking of how important the “environment” is in the corporate world as well.

You see, the quality of the environment (i.e. the culture) really does matter. Business leaders must take ultimate responsibility for shaping the environment within which their people live and must be good stewards of it as well, managing for the long-term consequences. The only way to judge an organization’s commitment to a healthy, sustainable and robust culture is to examine the choices leaders make – including the choice of where they put culture on the organizational list of priorities.

The choices we face, the decisions we make and the results we achieve all have to do with the health of the environment within which we operate. We develop our bad habits in good times and we develop our good habits in bad times. In other words, I cannot imagine there is any better time than right now to take a long, hard look at the question of organizational culture and determine what can and should be done to ensure the environment is helping, not hurting, your chances for success.

What is the secret to high performance and the elusive tonic to guarantee success?

Chances are, there is no one, single, definitive answer, no matter how hard we look or how badly we want it. There are, however, some broad guidelines and concepts that are well worth examining and baking into the cultural profile for any organization. I believe in a framework (based on the one created by Booz Inc.) called Organizational DNA.

In simple terms, the framework suggests there are four interwoven strands of DNA that can be decoded to help diagnose the state of an organization’s culture. It is a simple concept but, in fact, the power of its insight comes from that simplicity. The four strands to examine are:

Organizational Structure and Effectiveness: Is the organization structured in a way that enables performance?

Decision Making: Are the “decision rights” clearly vested?

Knowledge Transfer: Does information get from those who have it to those who need it?

Motivators and Differentiators: What basket of tools is used to guide and direct behaviour?

The truth of the matter is, the DNA of a “healthy” culture cannot be reduced to just one set of attributes or principles. As with so many things in organizational life, the context has to be taken into account and, frankly, it is more important to have the culture aligned with the context than simply to have the ideal formula.

There are three broad categories of “healthy” cultures:

The Just-in-Time Model: The culture focuses on seizing opportunities. The organization is quick to change course and does not hesitate to head off in a new direction when the winds of change indicate an advantage.

The Military Precision Model: The organization is responsive to “commands” from the inner circle at the top which can quickly galvanize the troops into perfect alignment and they then fly in formation.

The Resilient Model: The organization is able to ride over any rough patches and come away from that experience even better or stronger. Typically, this type of organization does not allow ego to blur its vision.

Organizations are living, breathing, dynamic creatures. As such, they suffer from the same flaws, imperfections, obsessions and biases as do the people who work in them – and the leaders who guide them. The possible dysfunctions of organizational life are many and the variations endless. There are, however, a few basic “pathologies” we can use to identify the fundamental diseases and discomforts.

There are four broad categories of “unhealthy” cultures:

The Over-Managed Model: A very common category of misfit, these organizations have built in multiple levels of supervision and prefers endless analysis and talk to action and results.

The Outgrown Model: Typically, this can be observed most readily by the fact the stress and strain levels are high and the organization is just barely hanging on. It tends to be controlled by a very few people at the top who micromanage in the extreme.

The Fits and Starts Model: The organization has plenty of energy and plenty of talent, but cannot seem to stay the course on anything it starts. The attention span of the leaders is short and that flows down to the levels below.

The Passive Aggressive Model: A more common dysfunction than you might think, this organization suffers from what Jack Welch calls “superficial congeniality”. Things look good on the surface, but just underneath jealousies and bad behaviours run rampant – both ignored and tolerated.

In the “real world” – the world that exists just outside the walls of the large conglomerate or multinational corporation – we have long relied upon the work of anthropologists to help us understand culture. Their work is fundamentally to help us decipher and understand the genetic code of the particular tribe in question, by examining their rituals, customs and habits.

In an organizational context, that list includes attitudes and beliefs.

In both cases (ancient or modern) we know that, for some reason, certain cultures thrive for a short while, some thrive for a long time and some die a quick and merciful death.

Why?

It seems the mindsets, attitudes, belief systems and approach which the “tribe” chooses, make the ultimate difference. Choose well – you thrive. Choose poorly – you die.

In either case, the culture that emerges is a choice, not just a random set of events, equivalent to a plague or a famine. The culture of an organization matters a great deal. It is the culture, the unspoken, the ephemeral that actually shapes the view the organization has and, as such, it defines the choices it puts before itself.

Doug Williamson is President & CEO of The Beacon Group.


The secret to high performance organizations

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