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A Recipe for High Performance: Combine Tough Accountability & Wise Fairness​​

Do you believe in the following three sentences?

  • Hire the best people, give them clear goals, give them the authority to achieve those goals, and then you get out of their way
  • Accountability is holding someone’s feet to the fire
  • If everybody is responsible, nobody is responsible

A company is a Sociotop of performers and slackers, introverts, and extroverts, engaged and apathetic, liers and uprights.  In this wilderness you want people to be motivated and engaged. The first step is to hold any of these personality types accountable for results.

Accountability is an Individual Commitment

Accountability is a necessary condition for any form of organization to succeed. One of my all-time favorite probing questions is “Who is feeling accountable?”:

  • If no one is feeling accountable, get one. Getting someone accountable is more than just assigning accountability. The person must feel a sincere desire to live up to that accountability – the person must commit as wholeheartedly as possible
  • If no single person is feeling accountable, get one person accountable. Shared responsibility – a shared urge to achieve something- is valuable and should not be done away with. Still, if push comes to shove individual responsibility is much more powerful in most situations
  • If no one can be pinpointed to be accountable, the solution is often not to declare a critical thing that must be achieved a shared responsibility but to redefine the problem to a higher level of abstraction. Usually, this means giving out a broadly defined mission and leaving the way how the work is done to the accountable person

This is a recipe for organizational success that has been proven and proven again since time immemorial. Individual rewards and punishment are still vital, even in the digital revolution.

Making Teams Accountable

In classic organizations, that are high on hierarchy and low those structures supporting self-management, making teams accountable does not work. There is simply not enough alignment of purpose, not enough trust and relationship capital around to make shared commitments work.  Therefore, a manager and not a group is made accountable for any more significant task.

In more self-managed organizations, that have invested in the 10 Habits of Organization,  making teams accountable becomes a real option. The need for accountability does not go away, but a team pledge becomes as good as an individual pledge to perform.

Making teams instead of individuals accountable is an option, once a high level of maturity, say level 3+ on the scale of liberated organizations is achieved (see 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations).

An Accountable Environment is a Tough, Results-Oriented Environment

Holding people accountable is a tough job: Using carrots and sticks in a manner that benefits the organization, in the long run, is an art. It requires personal impartiality, empathy, and a long-term perspective.

Rewards and punishment do not need to be material (e.g., money or career progress). Often immaterial rewards and punishments work better. Even the pain of having other people let down might be significant punishment for some people. Turn up the heat by highlighting that failure through individual feedback or a team based post-mortem session. The same goes for rewards. There is power is the simple act of giving praise for good work in public.

It takes an active, engaged manager or co-worker to do the straight-talking. But that is the essence of holding people accountable. In traditional settings, managers are somewhat left to their own devices to do this. In more liberated organizations structured meeting formats (76 Agile Workouts & A Fish)  help to deliver feedback regularly, in an environment where it is ok to talk about feelings and failure.

There is No Good Alternative to Tough Accountability

I challenge you to think of any workable alternative to accountability. Taking away accountability means that you end up with two scenarios:

  • Seldom: Hippy island, campfire Comfort Zone where people have a good time, and nothing gets done
  • Most of the time: Working zombies, 9 to 5, “I am in for the money,” Apathy Zone where people have a bad time and work results are uninspiring

There is no alternative to high accountability in human groups that want to achieve something of higher value. But Accountability alone is not enough. It must be combined with Fairness, or as Edmondson puts it “psychological safety”: A climate where people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings. 

Harvard Business School Professor and psychologist Amy Edmondson sums up the zones in a matrix.

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Tough guys, this might come as a shock to you: Psychological safety is universally recognized in the academic literature as being the most fundamental requirement of high performing teams.  It’s the number one of the 5 criteria that make a good, high performing team (see Good Managers – Good Teams: Lessons from Google).

 

Beware of Fear induced Accountability

Accountability can be created by fear.

Harsh punishment of failures, by firing, demoting or shaming persons fosters accountability, which is a good thing – is it not? People will certainly take care not to let their responsibilities slip again. This recipe for accountability has been tried successfully over thousands of years.

And no, strengthening accountability by instilling fear is not a good thing. By focussing single-mindedly on accountability  and employing the methods of fear, people will:

  • Cease to speak-up
  • Cover up failures
  • Choose unambitious, risk-free targets
  • Seek to keep in the shadows: hiding at their desks
  • Feel the emotional costs

Accountability is tough, and it needs tough actions – but fear will kill off innovations, learning, and performance.

Combine Fairness with Accountability

Instead of using fear with all its unintended collateral damage, use fairness. Fairness in the organizational, managerial context has three practical dimensions:

A. Distinguish the type of failure

A punishable offense is any failure that is not based on well-intended efforts. The more complex or experimental work-environments are, the more failure is unavoidable. Alas, with the digital revolution work is getting ever more complex and experimental. That means that failure should even be rewarded, as long as the effort was well intended. Thereby risk-taking is incentivized, a fundamental requirement for any entrepreneurial organization.

B. If faced with a failure, be proportionate 

Small failures should be embraced as opportunities to learn. Learning occurs through feedback or group reflections with the target of understanding the root cause. Some failures are just a fact of life and can’t be prevented in future, but the totality of all failures an organization makes gives it a good chance to learn and improve.

Big failures are bad. But even those should be framed as opportunities to learn. Consequences need to follow and might be harsh, but always based on the factual, cool-headed analysis of what is to be done to prevent or mitigate those in the future

The credo of iterative ways of working is powerful in that context. By working iteratively towards a target, in small increments, failure can be held small, and learning is immediate. The number of big failures can be reduced. That is the very concept of agile projects methods such as SCRUM or modern Start-up methodology (e.g.,missiles Lean Start-up).

C. Be impartial

Handling failure is always nasty for everyone involved. For a manager (or a self-managed team) this means the willingness to face the facts and dish out the hard truth in an impartial manner.

It takes courage to stand proud and upright on the deck in times of failure and crisis. But standing on the deck, you must, in order to direct the ship.  

Even in more liberated organizations, this courage is hard to summon. On the one hand, the level of trust and caring enables much more insight, but on the other hand, people are reluctant to act cool, analytically towards people known well to them.

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else. (David Brin, Author)

Yet Fairness means different things to different people. Like Truth, fairness is often a high minded concept, as Rawls has shown. In the toolset of Liberated Organizations some tools help to push things towards fairness:

  • The way feedback is given and built into daily work routines
  • The way work is transparent
  • The way meetings are run in an inclusive manner
  • The way teams are set up to resolve tensions themselves
  • The true north that a hierarchy of purpose gives each team and the whole organization

Nothing might be ever genuinely fair. But by building in management practices that implicitly foster fairness, the sense of fairness can be increased for everybody.

The Learning Zone

This is where high accountability meets high psychological safety.

A workplace is the more psychologically safe, the more a team member would agree with the following statements:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is dealt with constructively
  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues
  • People on this team sometimes do not reject others for being different
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team
  • It is not difficult to ask other members of this team for help
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized

In short: A climate where people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings is one where the perceived chances of being yourself and straightforward, without being subject to negative consequences, are high.

Intellectually leaders may endorse psychological safety and the voice and participation it enables, but it is difficult to forgo the raised voices or angry expressions that signify dominance. And for the coworkers is more natural to flee into the safety of silence.

Psychological safety does not imply a cozy environment. On the contrary: Make an environment too cozy and groupthink follows and performance drops.  There is a natural tendency to end up in a comfortable environment once you encourage psychological safety. We are primed by Evolution to value warmth, trustworthiness, and morality more than competence. Evolutionary, the intents of others are more critical for survival than the other’s competence.  People with evil intends are more dangerous than incompetent humans. Still, America, you shouldn’t let a world-class incompetent get access to missiles that could destroy the world several times over…

The Learning Zone:

  • It’s safe to speak up
  • It’s safe to admit failures
  • It’s safe to ask for help
  • Every failure is framed as an opportunity for learning
  • But consequences are still tied to results, especially if the effort has not been well-intended

How to Change from one Zone of Engagement to Another

The Apathy Zone is the one dominating most companies today. With disengagement at about 85% of the workforce (according to a yearly, long-term global Gallup study) withdrawal is rampant. Whats even worth, this disengagement level is not different between work and management level: Only 15% of Managers are engaged.

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So what is to be done to engage workers and get them out of the Apathy zone?

  • Moving an organization towards a comfort zone does not engage anyone. It helps social well-being, but not economic results.
  • Using fear to spur people into action is much more effective. Results will come from management by the time-proven approach of management by fear. There is a human cost to this, but economic results will improve compared to apathy or comfort.
    The trouble is: The more an organization needs to use the intelligence, creativity, and willingness to experiment and improve the status-quo, the less able management by fear is able to produce positive results. Management by fear violates the fundamental foundation of high performing teams: Psychological safety.
  • The silver bullet is to use the principles of Liberated Organizations (The 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations) to get from Apathy, with low Accountability and low psychological safety, to high Accountability and high psychological safety.
    The downside is: The path towards high accountability and psychological safety is a journey. It can’t be done at once and has to be done in a process. Waypoints for this journey are the maturity levels of Liberated Organizations (see 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations)

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This is what I think. What do you think?

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The 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations

I must confess. I am a Nerd. A special type of Nerd. I am a Nerd in Organizations. I am captivated by the way organizations work, by the ways humans arrange themselves to collaborate with one another.

Like every Nerd, I think that my thing, “Organizing”, is the most important thing in the world. Let me explain why.

Like so many boys I liked adventures. While playing, listening, reading, or just imagining there were so many adventures to be found, everywhere. The biggest ones to me were the stories of conquest and mortal peril: The Legions of Caesar, Pirates, Prussia, the Byzantine Empire, Genghis Khans Hordes, Japanese Senguko Jidai or the two world wars – all stories. Or the epic business stories of the East India Companies, Apple, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, etc.

That fascination stayed with me until now. It just metamorphosed from a boyish adoration of heroes to a quest to understand the inner workings of the organizations.  After all, most great people could not achieve anything without great organization and management.

That’s why I want to share with you what I call the “10 Habits of Organization”. It took me 48 years, a couple of hundred books and a lot of reflection to identify them.

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A word about naming: Please not that I alternatively rfer to the “10 Habits” as “10 Wonders”, too.

I. The Habit of True North

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.13.06.pngSome think the power of a unifying vision lies in being a great motivator. I disagree. The motivational aspect of share vision is not what is really important in an organizational context. For organizations, the coordinating aspect of a vision has far greater usefulness.

Motivation is a fickle thing, as humans are fickle. Most of us can’t be Mother Theresa all the time. But if we fall on hard times and got to make difficult choices, a vision will help. Moreover, the vision will help us to predict how others in the organization will act.

There is the illusion that a monolithic vision of a company will suffice: The one sentence like Facebooks “connect the world” or Googles “organizing worlds information”. But it is much more important to break down the vision so that every unit has a purpose so that an organization becomes a purpose-driven organization:

The Habit of True North: A hierarchy of purpose helps to replace a hierarchy of coercion.

Yet most organizations neglect visions and thereby relegate themselves to “just another place to earn money.” A pity, as it prevents people from bringing out the best version of themselves.

Working on a vision is hard, and it needs to start at the top. It takes a disciplined visionary at the helm of the organization – a combination seldom found.

II. The Habit of Caring

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.15.20.pngThe deeper we dig in us, the more we know that everything that matters is what we do for others. This is no sentimental sentence of a Gutmensch (do-gooder), this is an empirical fact according to worlds longest running study performed at Harvard University.

The Habit of Caring: Give people something to care of, and they will care.

Give everyone a clear line of sight to the customer – no matter if external or internal customers. Give each individual the chance to make someone else happy.

III. The Habit of Teams

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.16.07.pngPsychology and Neuronal science have shown again and again how fallible the individual human mind is. Every one of us is so blinded by his senses, prejudges, moods, attitudes and the very mechanics of his brain. There is no way around that, no matter how hard we try.

But if we engage in open, mindful exchange with others and allow us and others to reflect, the team can produce results that far and reliably outstrip the results that anyone alone can do.

We are, especially in the western world, so enamored with the narratives of the lonesome hero, that we tend to trust individuals more to do great things than we trust teams -despite all empirical evidence.

The Habit of Teams: Truely united teams are the nucleus of high performance

The conventional management hierarchy fails to produce high performing teams. It does so systematically, as autocratic structures foster fear and dependence – which are poisonous to a teams performance.

But wait: More Teams means more meetings, right? Most of us hate meetings: A waste of time. But we might fail to realize that all that tedious meetings are just a symptom of the failure to lay the foundations of successful teamwork. Some of those foundations are trust, deep relationships, shared missions and a structured meeting format which allows everyone to participate and open up – not just the talkative ones.

Indeed, good teams will have fewer meetings, as they do not require them: They achieve their coordination by more personal, shorter and more meaningful exchange.

IV. The Habit of People

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.16.41.pngSince the eradication of slavery, the right of every adult to make her or his own decisions is right, front and center of our global culture. We trust individuals to make the right decisions every time, no matter if the individual takes up sky-diving or purchases a house for hundred thousand dollars, or opt for a facial tattoo. Go ahead, you are the master of your own fate!

But since the abolishment of the medieval menial service of farm hands, achieved in the industrial revolution, there remain basically two areas where humans are not trusted to make the right decisions. In the education system, and in companies people are subordinated to other persons. In exchange for regular pay, employees forego their right to make their own decisions.

This is, of course, an advance from slavery and menial labor, but still, people are not welcomed as adults in a company. With the signature of their work contracts, people enter organizations as kids, not as adults. Bosses can order people around like they are kids. And as kids employees try to please their parents, even if it means bending the truth.

Having a good “parent” in business is fantastic, but much rarer than in families. After all, the connecting tie is not one of blood but one based on an economic relationship between superior and subordinate. Cold hearted exploitation is often the result.

The Habit of People: Treat people like adults, and they will start to make adult decisions.

It’s not easy, but even in hierarchical organizations there are techniques to do that, see, e.g. 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations.

V. The Habit of Freedom

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.17.19.pngRules and Policies stifle innovation. They restrict the freedom to act so much, that organizations may fall into sclerosis by entangling everyone in the organization in a byzantine web of bureaucracy.

It is as simple as that: Most company rules punish everyone for the misbehavior of the few. The more rules there are, the more loopholes there are, the more apparatchiks will prosper, and the less entrepreneurial an organization will be- but an Enterprise without Entrepreneurs in it should be a contradiction in terms.

The Habit of Freedom: If you want your company to fly, don’t lock everyone up in secure boxes.

Do not make a mistake to equate a company with a minimal number of rules to an Anarchy: As long as there is discipline, grown trust and shared values, the organization will be functional and innovative. Not just functional, as most hierarchies are.

VI. The Habit of Seeing

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.18.49.pngTake a step back and look at an organization. What do you see?

  • An Organization Chart showing a lot of boxes
  • People working in predefined jobs, doing their duty
  • Offices where people labor on their assigned tasks

This is all good and well for the industrial age, where work can be neatly parceled out to employees by all-knowing superiors. Efficiency dictated that the amount of information available to an employee is determined by what the employee needs to fulfill a job. To give more information was simply uneconomical.

The Habit of Seeing: Everything there is to know beats all you need to know.

Nowadays, in complex, ever-changing environments it’s more and more unclear what an employee needs to know to do a job. Even more important, research has shown time and again that good teamwork can only happen in an environment of mutual trust. Transparency, the pervasive availability of information to anyone, is creating trust, it is enabling decentralization of control and is enabling learning.

VII. The Habit of Learning

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.18.02Learning is the only sustainable competitive advantage there is. By now, this piece of wisdom might feel rather stale. So many companies have tried to become a “learning” organization – and so many failed.

Robert Kegan, a Harvard psychologist, and organizational researcher argues that much of these failures can be attributed to our lack of understanding of learning:

  • Learning happens not before or after the action, but primarily during the action
  • If we put feedback loops into every day to day activities, in an environment built on trust and openness, people will learn
  • Managers have to master pedagogy (techniques how to teach) and have a curriculum (whats useful to learn) in mind

The Habit of Learning: Saturate an organization with opportunities to learn and it will learn

People will not learn because they should. Some will want to learn. Other simply can’t avoid learning if nested in an organization where learning opportunity is abundant and embedded in every activity that they do.

VIII. The Habit of Gardening

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.19.18.pngDuring the last 100 or years, most managers have been thinking about themselves as problem solvers, with a heavy streak of day to day, “street-wise” (pragmatic), troubleshooting.

In a fast-moving, knowledge-driven economy, this self-view is fundamentally outdated. Now, decisions need to be made at the location of highest competence. They need to be made fast, on the spot. Therefore, a manager becomes both the designer of an organization and its caretaker and is less involved in the day to day actions.

In the words of Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO (which arguably is worlds most innovative organization): A Manager needs to become a Gardner.

The Habit of Gardening: Tend to an organization: Seed, water and protect it- and it will blossom.

Well, that’s a huge shift. From an all-knowing, often micro-managing decision maker to a Gardner that steps aside and lets ideas, people and finally business performance blossom. Many Managers won’t be able to do this shift, despite all evidence that the age of the servant leader has begun.

But do not mistake this for a green utopia. A Gardner arranges his garden for a purpose, and he cuts back rigorously if need be.

IX. The Habit of Exploration

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.20.48.pngIn today’s knowledge-driven economy, there is so much knowledge inside co-workers and so much data to be analyzed. Basically, making ever new hypothesis, trying out things, reflecting, revising the hypothesis and experimenting, again and again, becomes a core individual working technique rather than a high profile exercise of research teams.

Today, we are all explorers who try new things and are rewarded by our efforts. Just look at the way you are working on your smartphone. Chances are that the more you invest in getting to know its capabilities, the more personal utility you derive from the device. The quickest way to learn is to watch others and imitate their way of doing, for example, calling a taxi via uber or solving a tricky excel problem by finding a youtube tutorial.

Like it or not, we are all already explorers in today’s vast worlds of knowledge.

The Habit of Exploration: In a knowledge economy, everyone is an explorer.

The more everyone is stepping out of his daily work, explores, and brings home new nuggets of knowledge that are put to work in the local context, the better business performance will be.

X. The Habit of Practice

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.21.11.pngThe new, modern organization is a journey, not a destination. The speed of the journey will be determined by the quality of the practice. Willy-nilly adoption of this or that practice won’t achieve anything. What is called for is:

  • Deliberate practice
  • Encouragement to experiment & tolerance for failure
  • Iterative ways of working in small increments, in forever self-correcting feedback loops

The Habit of Practice: Organization is a journey that will go nowhere without value driven discipline.

Moreover, an Engineer-like (or should I rather say “Gardner-like”?) self-restraint in doing one thing after another without losing sight of the big picture. There is no point in expecting everyone to perform at stellar champions league level all of a sudden. It takes practice, blood, sweat, and tears to built great organizations.

But the discipline does not lie in slavishly following a method. The discipline must be in following the agile mindset and the values described in the 10 Habits.

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How to start

Seldom an organization will be able to follow all Habits of Organization. I suggest starting with aquiring at least one habit, as the benefits are immediate. Just pick one, any of the ten will do.

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Experience shows that work on the other habits will follow in due course: Go forward and allow – for example – more transparency and trust will likely increase, enabling more delegation and more autonomy.

I will elaborate how to start liberating in a later post. For now, have a look at 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations.

A Wonder to Awe the World

There are few things that are more worth aspring to then to liberate people. Still,  the way we organize work today is build on – often mindless- subordination. This is one of the last left-over of the feudal and industrial age.

I think it’s time to move past that, by using the tail-wind of the digital age: The Economic results of Liberated Organizations are simply superior.

It all comes down to this: It makes a huge difference weather you just show up at work or you really engage in it.

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This is what I think. What do you think?

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Special thanks to Sketch Note Artist Yasmin Cordes of Sketchworks. I met Yvonne last year at Re:Publica in Berlin and she ventured her help in visualizing the concept. A pleasure to work with you, Yvonne!

The Liberated Organizations Canvas – A workshop tool to sketch directions for aspiring builders of wonderful Organizations

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