During our dinner discussion about the future of the company, the two of us positioned the salt shaker, ketchup bottle, sugar packets, etc. all over the table in order to form a new organizational chart. We agreed that within his industry, and for that matter many others, a successful company is going to have to be nimble, i.e. be able to learn and understand things quickly and easily, be agile, i.e. move quickly and easily when the time is right, and be flexible, i.e. be willing to change and try new things. This was going to be the new normal.
In the midst of the discussion on how to reorganize the company, he pointed out that one team in particular was engaged in a “treadmill exercise,” namely working hard but going no where. Right now a lot of people are participating in a treadmill exercise. They are also working on treadmill teams and interacting with other treadmill people. And in the end, they are exhausted and frustrated.
Simultaneously a lot of people are struggling with issues related to language and performance. With accountability on the rise, people need better goals, objectives, performance metrics, and sound project management. Furthermore, this depth of clarity should be cascaded down into the organization in a timely and accurate manner. The difficulty is that a large percentage of people working right now do not have a common language. It feels like people are participating in a treadmill exercise within the Tower of Babel.
One solution at this time period is for leaders to teach Whole -> Parts -> Whole thinking. We know that in successful companies all the parts have to work together. Furthermore, it is the experience of all the parts working together that impacts the long term viability of the parts and the whole. In short, working at a company is a cumulative and inter-connected experience for those serving and those served.
As Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her January 2008, Harvard Business Review article called “Transforming Giants” explains: “In the most influential corporations today, a foundation of values and standards provides a well-understood, widely communicated guidance system that ensures effective operations while enabling people to make decisions appropriate to local situations.” This guidance system creates a “globally integrated enterprise” which is based on standardized processes and widely shared values and standards. The combination has a mutually reinforcing effect and results in better and more consistent decisions.
The first step in teaching Whole -> Parts -> Whole thinking is to learn to “zoom out before zooming in,” referencing the work of Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen from their book, Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck - Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, HarperCollins, 2011. The process of zooming out, then zooming in, begins by remaining hyper-vigilant to the changing conditions, internally and externally to the company, and to respond effectively once a change in noted.
As Collins and Hansen note, “10Xers understand that they cannot reliably and consistently predict future events, so they prepare obsessively - ahead of time, all the time - for what they cannot possibly predict. They assume that a series of bad events can wallop them in quick succession, unexpectedly and at any time…. 10Xers zoom out, then zoom in. They focus on their objectives and sense changes in their environment; they push for perfect execution and adjust to changing conditions. When they sense danger, they immediately zoom out to consider how quickly a threat is approaching and whether it calls for a change in plans. Then they zoom in, refocusing their energies into executing objectives.”
In short, Whole -> Parts -> Whole thinking is based on rigorous decision making and superb execution.
This week practice zooming out before you zoom in on goals and objectives. It will be the first step in becoming nimble, agile and flexible.