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Shaking Things Up is Easy

Shaking Things Up is Easy. Getting them to come down right is the challenge.

Recent events reminded me of the classic story, The Three Envelopes:

A large complex public facing program was not meeting expectations. The program was impacting client and senior executive lives because the organization was not meeting expected service levels, target dates, and budget. Issue were making it to the news. Public advocacy groups and internal and external auditors, each with its own agenda, were adding their input into the mix.
Executives at the most senior levels were compelled to do something. They fired the program manager.
The old program manager gave his successor, three sequentially numbered envelopes, saying, “When you need advice about how to handle a highly critical point in the program open the next envelope.”
The new program manager took command and immediately faced the question of what to do now. She opened the first envelope. The note inside said “Blame your predecessor.” “Wow!” she thought, “That will give me time to adjust things and get the program on track. It will also make me look smarter than him.”
Time passed. At first, things seemed like they were getting better. But, after awhile the same old issues began to reappear. Under pressure to do something, the new program manager thought this was the right time to open the second envelope. The second note said “Reorganize.”
“Great idea.” she thought. She went ahead and changed communication lines, roles and responsibilities. Again, things seemed to get better. There was lots more communication and activity in adjusting to new relationships. Tactical procedures were improved. Productivity went up.
A few months went by and, once again, the same old issues reappeared. With increasing anxiety, the PM reached for the third envelope. Its message was “Make three envelopes.”

The message here is that unless you do something to address the causes of problems the problems will not go away. Firing and reorganizing send up a smoke screen that obscures the real problems temporarily. The sacrificial lamb is given up, appeasing the gods or public. The reorganization addresses short term tactical issues.

This message applies to work efforts of all kinds, ranging from projects to programs to ongoing operational activities and organizations.

Something Has to Be Done

When things are not going as well as they should be going, when those in power perceive that there is dysfunction, the desire for change leads to action. “Something has to be done.” When the action is well thought out, particularly with regard to a systems perspective, cause removal and long term effects, we get improvement and approach optimal performance.

When the action is reactive and shortsighted the impulse to make things better often makes things worse. Replacing leadership and reorganizing can be effective means for making positive change. They shake things up. Or, they can be smoke screens to avoid having to look at serious systemic problems.

Sometimes the change makers are not aware of the systemic problems and sometimes, even though they are aware, they are unwilling to acknowledge and address them.

Systemic Problems – Organizations as Systems

Systemic problems are issues in the overall environment (the system) that effect performance. Organizations are complex systems made up of functional units that are woven together by communications and cross functional processes to achieve objectives that require the integration of the functions.

For example, performance relies on the work of procurement, human resource, IT and finance departments, executives and policy makers.

If the procurement process is dysfunctional, then vendor relations suffer. The symptoms of poor performance will appear as problems in programs, projects and operational activities.

If the hiring process is dysfunctional, the right resources will not be available at the right time, schedules and service levels will be disrupted, quality will suffer.

If policies and procedures create unnecessary bureaucracies the dysfunction will appear as performance shortfalls.

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Operational Activities and Enablers

Operational activities are where the rubber meets the road. They are the core business functions that meet the organization’s objectives by delivering products and services to clients. These are the functions that serve, manufacture and transport. Projects, programs and support activities are enablers. They enable the core activities to do their work optimally.

There is dysfunction when the enablers lose track of the fact that they are internal service providers whose clients are the core business functions and whose job is to make life as easy as possible for the people who are facing the organization’s public and providing the products and services that satisfy their needs. When there is little or no feedback regarding enabler performance and its impact on core functionality performance, the dysfunction persists and usually becomes worse.

Identifying, exploring and resolving systemic problems is threatening. It is complicated. it is costly. It is the way to make meaningful change.

One way to promote systemic change is to disrupt the current state – to shake things up.

Shaking Things Up the Right Way

Dysfunction calls out to be corrected, particularly when it is felt by clients and senior executives. Leadership changes and reorganizations shake things up. If they are part of a longer-term strategy to address the real issues they are powerful tactics. If, on the other hand, they are reactions and attempts at a quick fix – make three envelopes.

Shaking things up is often necessary in organizations or projects that have gotten bogged down into a habitual way of operating. By removing the structures and mindsets that have gotten in the way of progressive change, there can be an opening, an opportunity for thinking and acting out of the box, creatively. Where there is progressive change as part of normal operations, radical change will often be unnecessary.

The opening into an uncharted territory can be scary, particularly for those who do not do well with uncertainty and those who are invested in the old way. Those who hold on will be dragged down, those who direct and go with the flow will become more successful as things find a new stable and hopefully more effective state.

The change agents who use shake-ups as a tactic in a strategic change program recognize that communication to calm the anxieties of those who will be affected by the change is a critical factor. It is not necessary to know and tell everyone what the outcome will look like. That would be great, if you knew the nature of the future state. It is necessary to tell everyone what is going on and what to expect, even if it means informing them that the future plan is evolving. Rumors fly, and the imagination creates scenarios that get in the way of current performance and progress.

If you shake things up,

  • Make sure the shakeup addresses systemic issues
  • Engage the right people and make use of multiple perspectives
  • Formulate and communicate a strategic goal.
  • Acknowledge that while change can be directed its outcome is not always predictable. Be ready, willing and able to adapt over time
  • Be sensitive to the needs of the people involved. Manage uncertainty, expectations and complexity
  • Do not jeopardize the performance of the organization’s critical activities while the change is underway.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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