Monday, April 23, 2012

Changing the water in the fish tank

You've read along the way (even here) that the culture in your company is like the water in the fish tank.  The fish (you and your employees) swim in it every day, but you don't notice that it's there unless it has been left unattended and so is starting to grow murky.  The work climate includes things like how people dress, the communication methods that are preferred, war stories about heroes and scapegoats, focus on (or lack of focus on) customers, service, quality, etc.  The water in your tank includes assumptions about authority, the proper length of a workday, and assorted other habits of thought that never reach the conscious thought level unless a specific incident brings a relevant one to the surface.

Here's the thing - you may be thinking that you've got some sick fish working for you (figuratively speaking of course). To some extent the fish have to be responsible for themselves and their own health, but you as the leader are responsible for the condition of the water.  A perfectly sound fish, thrown into toxic water, will grow ill.  Said more bluntly, you are in charge of the work climate in your area, and if people aren't performing well the work climate may need attention from you.

So how do you fix a problem inside your company?  Performance is a combination of knowing what to do (goals), how to do it (skills and knowledge), and wanting to do it (attitude).  You can affect each of these by involving your staff in professional development that has each of these components built into it.

Here are some of the approaches companies have used to address the development of staff:

Pilot Projects
Companies choose to pilot projects or restrict their efforts to current operational hot spots because they want to save money or test their resource before going full-throttle in a people development effort.  This can be a valid trial and better than taking no action when resources are severely limited.  But it doesn't take into account the interdependence between departments, and its impact on performance.  A "cured" fish put back into a tank of bad water won't stay healthy.

Horizontal Slice - Peers
Notice on the diagram that the horizontal slice is at the individual contributor level.  Sometimes this is the easiest decision to make - train our front-line staff - because executives often come with greater levels of education and have more opportunities for professional development.  This doesn't address, though, the fact that management manages the work climate, the processes, the structure, the reward systems, and the strategy that contribute to success or failure.  You can have successes by taking this approach, but you will be leaving money on the table by doing so.

Diagonal Slice
This method places individual contributors directly in the company of senior-level leaders.  It can create greater understanding of the "why" behind executive-level decisions, and can reduce communication barriers that usually accompany interaction among employees at disparate authority levels.  Senior participants can access resources needed to solve problems being experienced by participants at lower levels on the org chart, and there is some beneficial cross-functionality built in here.  Participants should not be with other people in their direct reporting structure, unless the company culture is such that there are no fears of retribution for candid discussion.  

This is the most comprehensive approach, and requires the largest investment in dollars, time, and people.  It does, however, attain the most sustainable results of the four approaches.  The Cascade starts by obtaining commitment to the "fresh water" by senior management, which creates the support structure for the next level, and the next after that until all employees have been touched by the development process.  When employees say, "Management needs this more than us" or "Have the senior managers done their homework?" the company must be able to show sincere commitment at the top if they want to obtain the same level of commitment throughout the organization.

In addition to strategic plan facilitation, process improvement, and executive coaching, Summit has provided integrated cascades of professional development for more than 20 years as part of its vision to unleash human capacity.


Lily said...

Excellent and useful article! Thanks for taking the time to post this.

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