People First

We tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization. (Charlton Ogburn, 1911-1998)

We once helped a company enter a new market. The company had hired a consulting professor from a prestigious university to help it with an organizational transformation. The transformation was to be completed in 90 days, start to finish. And the professor had written a book on how to undertake such a thing (natch). We arrived around day 60.

The book prescribed assigning all employees, regardless of title or responsibility, to cross-departmental, cross-disciplinary teams. Each team was given a process or practice to transform. The ideas in those groups blazed like wildfire in a bone-dry forest — operational improvements, process-engineering concepts, counter-orthodox proposals, and more. The only thing hotter than the ideas was the enthusiasm they generated.

Based on those ideas, the organization was operationally re-evaluated and completely restructured. Most of the employees were given new roles and responsibilities based, in part, on the ideas they helped germinate. But …

Unintended Consequences

On the morning after, the company, its hopes high and its sights set higher, found itself in a state of despondent dysfunction. Productivity tanked. Product development ground slowly. Responsiveness declined, along with customer satisfaction. Management was mystified. It had created the perfect garden, had it not? But nothing grew. Everyone who’d known to whom to turn for knowledge and support in their old positions lost all their lifelines in their new ones.

The CEO expressed his bewilderment and his anger at people for not performing. We asked, “If you dropped seeds in sand and they didn’t sprout, would you be angry at the seeds? Or would you put them in a more fertile environment?”

Alas, Fearless Leader was not a man for analogy and metaphor. His inclinations were more along the lines of divide, distance, intimidate, and conquer. The closest he came to figurative speech was, “Floggings will continue until morale improves.” And his idea of change was that it should be top down, driven only by and comfortable only to him. So, heads started to roll, which only exacerbated the problem by introducing insecurity into an environment of unfamiliarity and uncertainty.

Throwing folks into the deep end may seem like a sound, hard-nosed management approach. But it reflects disrespect for people and disregard for their humanity.

Reality Check

Organizational transformation begins with people, not processes. Had the company known that, its reorganization would have been fluid, rather than rigid. People would have slid more productively into functional position, rather than being force-fit into mandatory line. They would have adapted to and improved the new processes into which they were moved, rather than running blindly along with processes they didn’t understand. And they would have been able to forge alliances with their new positional colleagues as they transitioned in, rather than being left without safety nets when they were pushed out on the wire.

The effects of overlooking your people are neither pretty nor productive. And the only thing that suffers more than your people when they’re ignored is your ability to innovate.

People first. Always people first.

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