Picture this: a large organisation decided to streamline a key process as part of an effort to improve performance. To this end it organised a two hour workshop to map the process. The workshop brought together participants from across different parts of the organisation so that they could contribute from their respective positions.

So far, so good. All the players are involved in a sensible exercise with a constructive goal.

But what happened on the day?

A Festival of Ineffectiveness … or the Workshop from Hell
The General Manager who sanctioned the exercise and promised to be there for the whole session made some opening remarks, gave it his ‘full support’, stayed for 10 minutes and then promptly disappeared.

The woman from Safety made some gratuitously off-topic remarks in an attempt to curry favour with the General Manager. After he left, she lost interest, tuned-out and played with her iPhone.

The guy from Finance was a no-show who, after accepting the calendar invitation for the meeting, sent his apologies by leaving a message on the organiser’s voicemail ten minutes after the workshop started.

The guy from Logistics was angry because his division was being amalgamated into the Operations area, so he used the workshop as an opportunity to snipe at the Ops division.

The woman from Customer Service seemed incapable of letting anything gel into an agreed process, since she perpetually re-opened aspects of the process that everyone thought had been settled. No one could work out whether she was genuine but misguided, or whether she actually intended to subvert the whole exercise.

The guy from Engineering thought he knew better than everyone else, and interrupted whenever anyone spoke so that he could ‘correct’ their comments.

And the guy from Communications was only looking for fodder to shove into the annual report. After realising there was nothing for him in the workshop after 15 minutes he ‘took an urgent call’ and left, and wasn’t seen for the duration of the workshop.

The workshop limped on with the beleaguered organiser trying to construct what he could. After two hours of purgatorial pain he pulled together what little of substance had been discussed, identified next steps, and suggested that the group (such as it was) meet again to finalise the process map.

It was a face-saving withdrawal. No subsequent workshop was held and the project quietly disappeared. It received only a passing mention, in a couple of water-cooler conversations, always accompanied by some sniggering.

Other than that, it was a roaring success.

Fuzzy Culture and the Pointy End of Perfomance
This scenario, while fictitious, represents a pastiche of various experiences of mine over the past 20 years. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent).

There’s so much that’s wrong in this scenario it’s hard to know where to start: the weak leadership, the culture of absenteeism and tolerance of bad behaviour, the lack of seriousness, the absence of follow-through.

The disturbing familiarity of this scenario makes you wonder how anything at all gets accomplished in organisations. Performance improvement initiatives such as the process mapping effort, no matter how worthy, are fragile creatures.

What our fictitious workshop highlights is that any initiative – even a seemingly technical one – is cradled by decidedly non-technical aspects such as leadership, culture, values and behaviours. Mapping processes is an important step in improving performance, yet the influence of cultural and people aspects on it is fundamental and pervasive.

One author, Robert E. Levasseur, talks of ‘the whole universe of fuzzy people issues that increasingly determine the success or failure of efforts to implement otherwise flawless technical solutions.’

It’s a telling description. The pointy end of performance arises out of the nebulous context of culture, values and behaviours. In his landmark book The Social Animal David Brooks draws on the last 30 years of social and neurological research to state that ‘Reason and emotion are not separate and opposed. Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent on it. … The human mind can be pragmatic because deep down it is romantic’ (p.25). The same applies to organisations (which are, in fact, a form of collective human mind): the hard-nosed technical aspects of technology and rational initiatives (reason) are ‘nestled upon’ the fuzzy people issues of culture, commitment, values and behaviours (emotion).

Tilling the Soil and Sowing the Seed
It’s something of a paradox that the tangible aspects of performance occur within an ecosystem of intangible factors. We can discuss ad infinitum what we mean by culture, and how to change it (on the assumption that that’s possible …) but the effects of an organisation’s culture are unmistakeable and substantial.

That is why any organisational initiative, and particularly any attempt to improve performance, must be preceded by a clear comprehension of the existing state of these fuzzy factors (a cultural diagnostic in effect) and a concerted effort to align with them and shape them. You have to till the soil of culture before you sow the seed of performance improvement.

This process entails collaboratively hammering out priorities; keeping these alive in a clear and coherent vision that is constantly communicated; codifying and (more importantly) modelling values and behaviours; systematically rewarding and sanctioning those values and behaviours; identifying and managing stakeholders (which boils down to campaigning to win the hearts and minds of those important to the endeavour while neutralising those who oppose them); embodying all of these in organisational structures; and relentlessly following up in implementation.

All this is (to keep my metaphor) organic rather than mechanistic. A new culture is not churned out as the result of a technocratic program. It’s not quick and it’s not easy: there are no guarantees in this fuzzy realm. But given that the whole gamut of performance and results is riding on it, the potential payoff is huge.

An Alternative Scenario: Engagement, Contribution and Productivity
Imagine this alternative workshop scenario: the process mapping workshop occurs and all participants (the General Manager included) stay for the whole session having cleared their diaries to focus on what is acknowledged to be an issue of importance for the organisation.

Staff are present and engaged: they contribute and there are no pot-shots or sniping. If a participant can’t attend they send their apologies – and their contribution – to the organiser in advance. There’s respect and awareness: there are no dominant players sucking the oxygen out of the room.

Candid but fair comments are made, offence isn’t taken and all contributions are taken in the constructive spirit in which they’re intended. There’s a minimum of politicking and grandstanding. Actions are documented and there is follow-up before the next meeting, at which there is a clear sense of momentum and progress.

Too starry-eyed?

Perhaps. But your author is not prone to attacks of Pollyanna-ism. I think that this latter scenario is achievable. If nothing else it’s something to edge towards: a bit of extra follow-up to make a project work here; a higher level of intention in a meeting there…

Which leads to the key question for you: do your organisation’s values, commitments and behaviours support higher performance, or quell it?

The answer spells the difference between a festival of ineffectiveness, or an ecosystem that nurtures contribution and results.

Kind regards,
Michael Carman
Director I Michael Carman Consulting
PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374 I

David Brooks (2012) The Social Animal Short Books.
Robert E. Levasseur (2010) ‘People Skills: Ensuring Project Success – A Change Management Perspective’ Interfaces Vol. 40, No.2, March-April, pp.159-162.

© Michael Carman 2015