Performance and the Organisational Constraint

I just watched this TedX video on automating democracy. It’s a big picture idea, that challenges a lot of what we understand to be the ‘way things work’. Clearly we’re still a way off the end solution he envisions, if we even get there at all, but it got me thinking about the fundamental organisational structures and implicit assumptions that underpin not only government but corporate organisations too.

Much as we may complain and recognise the problems in the democratic systems of the world we live in (if you believe our systems are indeed democratic.) If we look at actual ‘hours spent’ in our day to day lives, for the most part we don’t work in democratic systems. If you’re ‘lucky’ you may work in a meritocratic system (the original meaning of meritocracy interestingly is a pejorative one, not a positive one as used today), but in many cases the definition of the corporate power structure comes much closer to an oligarchical or plutarchical one. This may make some of us a bit uncomfortable for suggesting this is the case, but I’ve generally found that the bigger the question mark around the status quo, the greater the discomfort level and resistance to it, indeed whilst we often don’t question this state of affairs, we perhaps should, in order to take a ‘wide angle’ view of the performance management landscape.

This Inc. article places an interesting slant on things to suggest business cannot operate in a democratic way. I’d say there is evidence of cooperatives that work perfectly well without an autocratic head, but it seems they are currently the exception not the rule. This is likely to do with the very weaknesses of democracy at coping with complexity and the sheer scale and speed of decision making. However top-down command structures have similiar decision making problems, as organisations scale, decision making also becomes inherently blurry.

Immediately as I wrote this, Monty Python and the Holy Grail comes to mind where King Arthur converses with the serf leading to the cries of ‘Help, Help I’m being repressed!”

Clearly I’m being a bit facetious in this comparison, but deliberately so, as in every satire there are the ever present grain/s of truth.

However the purpose of this article isn’t to ‘get political’. Instead I’m interested in the learning, organisational dev and performance angle. Some possible questions that could be explored:

How do we create meaningful work experiences when in reality many workplaces are based upon a system of governance that we, for the most part, reject in the non-work related aspects of our lives?

How do we make sure that people wish to stay, grow and perform in organisations if their interests in it are limited, ie: ‘Just a salary’?

How do we make sure that engagement, learning, growth on an individual level can run hand-in-hand with an organisation’s development and success?

How could we ensure interventions are corrective and effective, if the ‘organisational good’ is not directly in line with the ‘individuals good’?

All big questions! So what does this mean for those of us with a job to help the organisation perform?

When we look at the organisational development landscape is this the elephant in the room? Are top-down programs focusing on ‘push not pull’, doomed to failure? I’m not saying they are, but perhaps there’s something in that line of questioning that demands a closer look, certainly the industry is recognising in many fields such as marketing that pull is certainly the way forward.

One possible thesis is that if we wish learning to work, people to stay engaged, performance to improve then people must take the ownership of that themselves. There are many theories which would support this view (constructivist school -Dewey, Piaget and also motivational theory – Hertzberg Vroom, Maslow et.al.)

The next step is then establishing how agents are both enabled and able to perform in this landscape. This is a complex and difficult problem to overcome, and requires a radical shift in the way we look at the operational status quo, that will also likely involve a seamless and well integrated blend of both technological and more ‘human’ approaches that address underlying needs as well as superficial ones.

But there are deeper, more meaningful questions to be answered that go beyond simply ‘supporting performance’ which is predominantly ‘what and how’ and start to move into a space which more comprehensively answers the ‘why’. Why should I follow you? Why is what I do worthwhile? Why do I get up in the morning? All important questions, the answers to which we making those first, painful steps towards.

From a leadership perspective, there are some potential models out there, such as distributed leadership (in the CIPD podcast linked here), which could answer some questions, or lattice organisations but this authors view is that in some instances, may not actually get us past the organisational constraint mentioned above. Perhaps what we need are ‘follower first’ programs and radical rethinks that shake up or invert the traditional organisational pyramid before performance improvements can really take hold?

Clearly we’ve got a way to go in with organisational design, HR, learning and development and talent management in this new space.

My personal view is that more inclusive, more democratic, distributed and devolved approaches are best at placing the ownership of development in the hands of those who do the work. As part of this, we should also recognise that interventions cannot simply be run in isolation from each other, but need to be part of a holistic landscape not just of the tools, content and support materials we currently associate to learning, but also tied to deeper organisational change.

This type of change takes time, but perhaps it’s a necessary time investment if we are to make the changes that will really stick, and allow our organisations to adjust and adapt to the challenges they face.

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