#11 Freedom: Realizing The Limits Of Process

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Last time I drew this circle (above) of what work looks like in a perfect Keith Daniel world (Of course your map may look different - that’s the whole idea here). 

So on the left I had BE FAIR DAILY. This was all the context/environment stuff that surrounds the actual doing of your job. Things like salary, HR practices, your bosses skills.  

Then, over on the right side we had HELP GROWTH HAPPEN.  Which is more about the actual doing of the job and is where we find motivation. This is where Herzberg placed RESPONSIBILITY and DIRECT FEEDBACK. Todays topic is responsibility.

Recall that Herzberg stuck with responsibility as a motivation factor all throughout his work and revisions. And responsibility was control over resources, self-scheduling, personal accountability, direct communications authority.  

I like this definition, it feels like growth.  But it's not what I often see in the business world. Out there I see a heavy process focus. Please understand that I 100% believe in efficiency and the need to tune processes. Crank out more widgets/customers/designs etc. Nail down responsibilities. And measure. And chart. And get lean! But where does it all lead?

To answer that question I'll turn to strategy guru Michael Porter and author Joan Magretta. Magretta worked with Porter for many years and wrote a book to make his ideas more approachable. The book, Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition, contains this lengthy passage…

“...simply improving operational effectiveness does not provide a robust competitive advantage because rarely are “best practice” advantages sustainable. Once a company establishes a new best practice, its rivals tend to copy it quickly…Best practices spread rapidly, aided by the business media and by consultants who have created an industry around benchmarking and continuous improvement programs. The most generic solutions, those that apply in multiple company and industry settings, diffuse the fastest. Name an industry that has yet to be visited by some version of Total Quality Management.

Programs like these are compelling. Managers are rewarded for the tangible improvements they achieve when they implement the latest best practice inside their companies. That makes it all too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture of what’s happening outside their companies. Competing on best practices effectively raises the bar for everyone. While there is absolute improvement in operational efficiency, there is relative improvement for no one. The inevitable diffusion of best practices means that everyone has to run faster just to stay in place. 

No company can afford sloppy execution. Inefficiency can overwhelm even the most distinctive and potentially valuable strategies. But betting that you can achieve competitive advantage - a sustainable difference in price or cost - by performing the same activities as your rivals is a bet you will probably lose. No one has been better at operational efficiency competition than the Japanese, but, as Porter’s work documents in great detail, operational efficiency competition has led even the best of them to chronically poor profitability.”

So this is a real conundrum. 

I've managed large teams. I've had affairs with the idea of the perfect process. But Porter, a revered guru in the world of strategy, is telling me it’s at best a break-even game. I’m likely not gaining an advantage over my competition.

And there’s another problem with an over-focus on efficiency. It can take on a life of its own. It can lead to dehumanization. To seeing people as replaceable parts. Billy quit, tough shit, plug someone else in, keep the machine chugging. Hit the freaking numbers!

Getting things so mapped and efficient that you can always just plug another cog into the machine.  But then you have a building full of cogs. 

"Sorry Billy. We'd love to give you another day of unpaid vacation to fulfill one of your life's dreams. But then we'd have to do it for everyone. And that would be hard to manage. Hustle back to your desk now."

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"Billy, some folks were talking about you being a few minutes late today. I just wanted to let you know that I'm OK with it this time. Free pass this time. I'll look the other way this time.  By the way I hear you fixed that bug over the weekend.  Thanks a ton, make sure you get some of the free pizza at lunch."

What happens when something shifts and you need some creativity? Or some loyalty? Maybe it's too late. Cogs aren’t known for loyalty or creativity. Don’t be surprised if Billy tells you to f%&k off on his way out the door. 

 And is your life's work really about turning people into cogs?  Do personal growth and process sound like close relatives? Are they even on speaking terms? It's a delicate balance. And like I said - I've seen both sides.  I've been as guilty as anyone. 

As my offspring gets ready to head into the working world, the litmus test for me is always the same. What do I want for my kids? Do I want to be the daddy of four little cogs? Process first, person second. 

And even if you don't give two shits about my kids or anyone's kids for that matter. What happens when, as Porter predicts, you and your competitors are all efficient beyond your OCD dreams?  What's left to differentiate you?  Just the people. The cogs. And I'll argue to my grave that you can't processize loyalty and creativity. 

You can study the psychology behind this stuff and get yourself fully versed in the theory. But then you have to hire real people for implementation. To actually nurture the loyalty and creativity. Flawed human to flawed human.

That's when the shit hits the fan.

The only trick I know isn't a trick at all.  We've already talked about it. You have to, from a sincere place inside of you, want to help other people grow. HELP GROWTH HAPPEN. Process, just like I said about money in an earlier post, is important.  It just can’t be first. First is growth. Then you can implement any  process the team wants. 

And that's why I want to tweak Herzberg's focus on responsibility. To me it sounds almost process first, person second. 

I want to make it crystal clear that the correct formula for the Keith Daniel map is people and their growth first. So I want to nix the responsibility title and replace it with FREEDOM. 

  We need to achieve x by y. You are responsible to get it done as you see fit.

Versus

We need to achieve x by y. You have the freedom to get it done as you see fit.

Got to get something done and it's your job to see it through. But responsibility sounds almost like a burden. Like someone’s preparing their finger-pointing CYA (cover your ass) speech before we even start.

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Freedom, on the other hand, feels more like a growth adventure. More creative. I see brighter colors and hear a little cheesy ”wind beneath my wings" in the background. Either way my ass is on the line, so why not lean toward the positive? 

So as I said at the beginning, I'm pretty OK with responsibility as Herzberg defined it.  I’m just changing the title to Freedom. Attacking a challenge as you see fit. Getting creative, going off the board, collaborating in strange and unique ways. This fits with how I felt during the most motivated time of my career.

Like I could do whatever I needed, within the cultural norms of the company, to succeed. It was awesome. I loved the feeling. I was motivated. I was growing. And both the company and I benefited.

So my new map looks like this - with Freedom taking over for responsibility.

And I’d like to go on a small rant before I leave this topic. But that'll have to wait till next time...

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