Over the years, Tonianne and I have visited companies and government organizations of all shapes and sizes. Everywhere we go, we find people who are at work and are working, but aren’t working to improve the organization, how it works, the products it provides, or its relationship with its customers.
Managers lament that this is because they feel their people aren’t rising to the occasion, team players, or whatever. The truth is, we create systems with attributes specifically designed to stop participation before it starts.
When someone tries to help, to solve a problem, or to promote potentially positive change and are met with strong resistance (skepticism, indifference, or outright hostility) they learn that their help is not desired. Not only that, but they begin to find their help to be threatening to their careers. They don’t want to “rock the boat” by suggesting change or improvement. Then they cope by either complaining that change never happens or, worse, stop looking for ways to improve or problems to solve.
This develops a culture of continuous indifference which we can all witness in systemic breakdowns like the Chevy Cobalt incidents where people in GM knew full well there was a dangerous issue and did not appropriately address it for fear of internal retribution.
Agency is the ability to act when a person sees action as necessary. It doesn’t mean that people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, but it does mean they are able to exercise good professional judgment. When we impede our employee or coworker’s ability to act when they feel it is professionally responsible, we are leaving them no choice but to not act in those cases.
When we overy define job descriptions, place unnecessary permission paths in the way of action, or specifically tell people “Just do the work you are given”, we are immediately stopping them from exceeding our expectations, helping the company improve, or alerting us when potentially devastating problems arise.
Every rule we create costs our companies money. Every rule we create limits action. Every rule we create adds to the impedance of completing good work. We do need some rules for without them we have no system at all. But the more rules we create, the thicker the bureaucracy.
Think of bureaucracy as traffic. If it is mid-afternoon or late at night, you would have no qualms driving through downtown to get somewhere. Traffic will be acceptable and your drive will be relatively pleasant. If it is rush hour, you would say, “let’s not make that drive, traffic is too heavy.”
When people consider whether to take an action (in this case going that extra step for the company) they first consider the opportunity cost. Bureaucracy drastically increases opportunity costs and often leaves good improvements undone because they are simply too much trouble.
When we don’t know what is going on with our projects or our product development, we don’t actually know what to look for to improve. We don’t know what “right” or “success” actually look like. Therefore, we can’t spot “wrong” or “failure.” We then wait for someone else to tell us that things have gone wrong.
When people understand the direction and vision of their work, they become excellent leading indicator generators of success or failure. They will know when things are going well or poorly and let you know. If they don’t have that understanding, there is no way they can know.
Knowing our place on a project or a team means when know when we should act alone, when we should involve others, and when we should ask someone else to act. While strict job descriptions are not necessary, understanding expectations and boundaries allow people to use their professional judgment. One of the worst things we can do is tell a group of confused people “you all now have agency and you can do whatever you want … go improve!”
People do need a defined system to in which to operate, even (or especially) if they can change that system.
Simply put, people don’t care about things that don’t care about them. I recently ended at long-term relationship with my airline carrier-of-choice because they demonstrated that they did not care if I stayed or went … so I left for a carrier that was more interested in a mutually supportive relationship. At the office, if people feel that they are just a cog in a machine, they will behave like a cog. Cogs turn, but they don’t improve, they don’t innovate, they don’t extend their own use. Your system must support and appreciate the people that comprise it.
There are many ways to be incompetent. In the end it comes down to this … what is the delta between an obvious good outcome and what actually happens?
Be honest about this. What patently stupid things has your organization done that destroys employee morale or confidence? How often do customers call your organization and say, “I was expecting to give you money, but you’ve made it so difficult I’d rather go without your product entirely?” Or internally, how many times do your employees endure another new process, another new silver bullet, another new cultural change that results in the same old work done the same old way … plus the new one? How many times do employees say, “that won’t work” and it happens anyway … and it doesn’t work.
Old boy networks, popularity contests, unnecessary middle management, stack ranking, and other alienating career advancement schemes make it unlikely that people will take risks, offer information, or collaborate on new ideas. They create internal games that work well for certain personality types to advance in the company, but not to promote the involvement and creativity of the organization as a whole. As a result, career advancement often directly works against a company’s best interests.
Any overloaded system will produce increasingly defective work until it finally collapses. We do not implement systems that measure the capacity of our workers and control work to remain at optimal levels. People in today’s economy are routinely overloaded, overworked, and overstimulated. Nerves are frayed, tensions are high, and quality is low. We don’t see this because it is status quo, we accept anger in the office, work as stressful, and low-quality work that requires significant editing and shoring up before release as normal.
Simply creating a working environment optimized to how much quality work people can actually do will, in the end, produce more and higher quality output. Very few companies today (Zappos, Riot Games, etc.) actually do manage to create working environments designed to not overload those inside them..
This is the embodiment of the Culture of Continuous Indifference. We have seen several companies where people (even upper management) will say, “Change doesn’t happen here, it’s just not part of our DNA.” DNA that does not evolve, dies. Any of the previous 9 can lead to this, but the moment this become lore, it actually becomes the culture. When we accept that we can not create any change or that we cannot innovate … we simply do not do it.
I’ve heard this in many ways, “I don’t pay you to think.” “I control the work backlog..” “I’m the one that talks to the customers.” “That’s not your decision.” “Don’t worry about that right now.” “We tried that before 10 years ago and it didn’t work” There are a million ways to shut down someone with initiative. But in the end, you are paying these people money and they are trying to help. It’s not like they get a cut of profits or a direct reward. These people are trying to help make the company more profitable, a better place to work, or a better supporter of their customer’s needs. When you tell them to stop, they will.