Intelligent Organizations for the Rest of Us

Beemer and Seppo (and Wes in a separate comment) had the same objection to yesterday’s post, which I’ll summarize as: “What you’re describing will only work for organizations with smart, motivated people which would probably be successful anyway. What about the rest of the organizations in the world who employ normal people?”

Admittedly, I was originally talking about an organization where I would like to work, which is why I mentioned the caveat about knowledge workers. But after thinking about it some more, I realized that some of the more successful organizations run this way right now are anything but “knowledge organizations”. For instance, the book I quoted yesterday was a book about Southwest Airlines, which dedicates itself to making its employees happy and motivated and full of esprit de corps about making Southwest’s customers happy. Another such organization is Joie de Vivre, the hotel management company run by Chip Conley, who wrote the book Peak about his philosophy. Nordstrom’s is a third example of a company where employees buy into the company mission of customer service excellence.

I think the same general model that I proposed yesterday would apply to such organizations that are not composed solely of “elite” workers. The first step is articulating the company vision and putting in place an organization that is dedicated to fulfilling that vision. That includes hiring practices (Nordstrom’s “hires the smile, trains the skill”), training practices, compensation and reward structures, etc. It also needs a culture that supports the vision, with people telling stories about others going above and beyond that set the example of what it means to be part of the organization, and employees recognizing great work and congratulating their coworkers in the moment.

Tobias Lehtipalo, the person whose email triggered yesterday’s post, observed that I hadn’t taken Hawkins’s model through to completion. As he reminded me, part of the model is that each of the cortex layers are wired together, such that “higher” layers are sending signals to “lower” layers to indicate what the “lower” layer should expect to see – our sensory apparatus is actually wired to only pass us information that matches our expectations. Lehtipalo suggests that managers in an organization serve a similar purpose – they prime their employees with what to expect, and prepare them for that situation.

This gets away from the self-organizing aspect of the organization I described yesterday (as usual, I hold anarchy as a romantic ideal) and towards an organization where the job of managers is to frame the company vision so as to make it compelling for their employees. As I quoted the Southwest CEO in yesterday’s post, employees need to “believe in the mission they are trying to accomplish and know that they are contributing to its success”. This may not be something that everybody in the organization does for themselves; instead, managers break down the company vision into team goals that are compelling and motivating for the team, and explain how those team goals contribute to the success of the company. Again, this will fail if the whole company is not aligned with that vision; if the team succeeds in its goals, it must be rewarded. Misalignments will undermine the company vision – beware the discordant element.

Framing the company vision for employees also has the added benefit of reducing the actual management that needs to be done. For instance, Nordstrom’s is well-known for its vision of customer service excellence, and the stories its employees tell each other reinforce that vision on a daily basis. So when a Nordstrom’s employee isn’t sure about what to do in a situation, they don’t have to ask their boss – they apply their understanding of the vision based on the stories they’ve heard, and do what makes the customer happiest. Similarly, when I was a software developer, it was vital to me to understand the end-goal of the software I was writing – understanding what the user wanted drove all sorts of minor design decisions I made as I wrote the code, including times when I chose the harder technical option because it was the right thing for the user.

Will this sort of vision framing work for employees who just want to show up, do their job, get paid and go home? Probably not. Such people are best suited for more hierarchical organizations, which specify the proper response to each situation in detail, and thus change more slowly because the processes need to be updated. But I think most people want to get more out of their 40 hours at work each week than a paycheck.

Giving employees the opportunity to contribute to the success of the organization (and be appropriately rewarded for their contributions) would be motivating, or at least it is for me. It’s the chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves, which I think is a fundamental impulse for people. It’s a chance for immortality, to create something that will live on after we are gone. Some satisfy this impulse by starting families, and others by pursuing scientific theories or inventions that will stand the test of time. Being part of an organization that is built to last might be similarly motivating for people as a way for them to change the world.

I don’t know if I’ve sufficiently addressed the objections to yesterday’s post, but I think that this sort of organization could be built for all sorts of companies, not just those of the “elite”. I think it requires more management than the self-organizing company I described yesterday, but management in a visionary guiding role rather than a hierarchical authoritative role. But I sure would like to see more examples of such companies, and someday even get to be part of one.

P.S. One thing I noticed is that all three of the companies I listed earlier (Southwest, Joie de Vivre, Nordstrom’s) are service organizations, which I find interesting as the deliverables are intangible and thus would seem to be more difficult to value. It seems like the principles would be even easier to apply in a manufacturing organization where the company produces tangible objects that employees can take pride in. Saturn might be one example, a company whose goal was to build a world-class compact car, and everything the company did had to contribute to that goal (disclaimer: I owned a Saturn for eight years and was very happy with it). Gore & Associates and 3M and Semco also come to mind as possible examples.

13 thoughts on “Intelligent Organizations for the Rest of Us

  1. Hi Eric

    all these post seem to lend to these thoughts for me

    thought about the leadership challenge?

    servant leadership is a start … the modus operandi of getting the delegation and authority to the individual…

    also we have to think about equity for the individual –

    how we as managers gain trust in the abilites of problem solving and risk managment in employees?

    and the move towards greater emotional intelligence at work for leaders, manager and employees

  2. “Giving employees the opportunity to contribute to the success of the organization (and be appropriately rewarded for their contributions) would be motivating, or at least it is for me. It’s the chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves, which I think is a fundamental impulse for people. It’s a chance for immortality, to create something that will live on after we are gone.”

    While that’s motivating for some, the problem is that in the “real world,” even if you have a company with strong hiring practices, you’re still going to be saddled with some measure of dead weight. People who make it through the hiring process, that don’t take the $1000 to quit, who suck.

    These are people who are motivated only by the presence of a paycheck, who will do the absolute minimum required to keep their jobs. Worse, they’ll be political monsters who produce nothing but PR for themselves within the organization while throwing their co-workers under the bus. These are the poison pills, the people who single-handedly destroy the team dynamics – the one person who can make everyone never want to come in to work, to work hard, or to focus on the task at hand.

    How do you deal with them? Because at every job I’ve ever been at, there’s been at least a fistful of people like this in one way or another.

    For the record, the people like this I’ve worked with have been like cockroaches – somehow, management has no idea they’re awful, and even when they find out, no amount of pressure save for a flat-out firing will get them to quit.

  3. Interesting. I guess I’ve been fortunate, and I’ve only ever run into one such cockroach in ten years of working. I’ve had a couple incompetent coworkers, but they’re easy to avoid, although annoying when you have to cover for them.

    The only thing I can think of is to create pockets of excellence, small teams where you do control who’s involved simply by not inviting others. That may be easier said than done in more formal work environments where you don’t choose who is on your team, like, say, the video game industry. Sorry, dude.

  4. “The only thing I can think of is to create pockets of excellence, small teams where you do control who’s involved simply by not inviting others.”

    This is basically the only way I’ve been able to deal with the problem. When faced with someone whose performance is intractably poor, I’ve always tried to “work around” them. The problem is that for some reason, people like this seem to keep getting promoted, and they often end up in managerial positions.

    Those are harder to work around – they’re literally like the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert. While you can essentially devote half your time to keeping them “spinning” (with the plate spinning analogy), then use the other half to get the team spinning without them, it a.) sucks up a huge portion of your time, and b.) drives you FUCKING BATSHIT CRAZY.

    Recently, I’ve been trying to take a less antagonistic tack with the assumption that everyone comes from a place of good intentions – that everyone *wants* what’s best, but simply doesn’t understand how to achieve it. It’s helped in some cases, and been totally wrong in others. But the main problem is that some people have good intentions, they want the best, but the position that they’re in requires a modicum of talent that they simply don’t have.

    In those cases, I don’t have a clue what to do.

  5. Yeah, the Peter Principle often holds. I’ve gotten away with not telling my manager what I’m really doing at a couple companies – just doing enough to keep them mollified while working on another project behind the scenes. That doesn’t address the problem, though.

    Clearly we need to start our own company so that we can keep idiots from being promoted and ensure that people aren’t hired into positions they don’t have the talent to accomplish. Except then _we’d_ be the annoying bosses that the employees complain about. Dammit! 🙂

  6. Yeah! Sounds good to me. Seriously, a couple of my friends (current co-workers and ex-coworkers) have been thinking about doing exactly that. But I have no interest (or acumen) for the business side of things – I just find it all quite… terrifying, frankly.

  7. while on the drive home from work yesterday there was a discussion about trust on bbc radio 4, that linked to this discussion around 4:15-45pm. you can listen to this radio show from the site and follow listen again.

    the comment about top down, bottom up = the change to servant leadership.

    See your organisation chart in your mind, see that it is like a pyramid the inference is the most important person is either chair, ceo. With servant leadership invert the pyramid and see the most important people in your organisation. Typically this the front line staff that meet the customer.

    how this works for you in connection with intelligent organisation and the need for servant leadership the ability and the RIGHT to challenge the current method of motivation and structure of delivery in the organisation to enable the creation of intelligent organisation.
    Also thinking about it – see it as leaders look after the employee, the employee looks after the customer, the customer looks after that shareholder = happy organisation.

    Does your manager/leader help this? Can you see how this is in your organisation.

    Eric – i hope so – since both yours seem to be – well at least according the arrvark’d dvd =>

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