Monday, April 26, 2010

Building an Adaptive Organization - part #3

THEME: Spring 2010 From Vision to Action Roundtable Report

FOCUS: Building an Adaptive Organization - part #3

Monday morning: April 26, 2010

Dear friends,

Building an adaptive organization takes time and attention. It also requires senior leaders to differentiate between urgency, complacency, and false urgency.

As John Kotter wrote in his marvelous book, A Sense of Urgency, Harvard Press, 2008, complacency is a “feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction, especially when coupled with an unawareness of danger or trouble.” It is the product of success or perceived success. Those who are complacent virtually never think they are complacent; they are just content with the status quo. The best way to identify the complacent is by what they do instead of what they say. Kotter also notes that false urgency is almost always the product of failures. It is built on a platform of anxiety and anger.

On the other hand, he explains that a true sense of urgency comes with a “pressing importance.” Those with it want to make real progress every single day. Underlying a true sense of urgency is a set of feelings: a compulsive determination to move, and win, now. Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. . . and Others Don't. HarperBusiness, 200, notes that part of building a sense of urgency comes when we “confront the brutal facts” and yet “remain optimistic.”

However, my recent experiences have shown me one simple fact, namely we don’t know what we do not know. This has particularly clear to me because once we have a clear sense of urgency, we must also have a clearly defined mission. Since the Fall 2009 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, I have been asking many people what is the mission of their organization. The answers have ranged from “I haven’t a clue” to something that resembles gibberish, i.e. words that have no meaning but are strung together in an unintelligible sequence. Upon reflection, I have found one source of this confusion.

Most current organizational mission statements can trace their roots back to the writings of Tom Peter’s book, In Search of Excellence, or Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Based on the material presented, many people began writing mission statements in the early 90’s. A second wave of mission and core value statements were written in the late 90’s and early part of the turn of the century.

Here is where the current problem gets interesting. When these first mission statements were written, there was a high degree of personal interest, urgency and commitment to what was generated. Those involved were passionate about the result. Now, nearly twenty years later, these mission, vision and core value statements have little passion and/or utilization in the organization because the original people involved are no longer employed, moved on, or retired. In short, the original commitment, passion and urgency has been watered down to such a degree that these core documents are, in many organizations, symbolic but not integrated message.

Still, in the midst of this situation, there are very interesting developments. For example, when working with Systems Unlimited on strategic planning, a non-profit in Iowa City, Iowa that offers personalized services to persons with disabilities within their local communities that help people improve and maintain the quality of their life, we discovered that a dialogue about mission and core values amongst key leaders has not only generated a new draft of a mission statement, but also resulted in all key divisions and departments writing their own mission statements. While at first, this may appear to be nothing more than a time consuming activity, the resulting clarity and focus has increased the level of urgency and yielded tremendous new levels of understanding and focus. As one who has been involved in processes like this for quite some time, it was delightfully refreshing to witness people become energized and engaged like those who created the first drafts back in the early 90’s. It is now something that I have recommended to other clients. Those who have done this report to me that this process is generating similar results.

The other thing I have observed about adaptive organizations recently is that they have the ability to understand how decisions are made. Many years ago, I remember sitting with Chris Ahoy, Associate Vice President for Facilities at Iowa State University, and discussing this very subject. We generated a chart that recognized the importance of integrating a trends analysis, capacity analysis and a strategic nexus review before making a strategic decision. He has further refined this chart in his book, Customer-Driven Operations Management: Aligning Business Processes and Quality Tools to Create Operational Effectiveness In Your Company , McGraw-Hill, 2009. As leaders, we have to recognize that we may personally discount certain factors in the rush to make a fast decision. However, if we are to be effective as a senior executive, then this is not an option.

Finally, adaptive organizations understand and define accountability; they know how it is done. There are days when senior executive forget that accountability is a learned behavior. Recognizing that accountability means having a willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions, we need to remember that accountability in adaptive organizations requires us to balance the desire for “perfect” action with the need for experimentation that results in improved performance.

This week, recognize true urgency, understand mission better, and help more people learn what is accountability.

Have a tremendously successful week,


Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

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