On very very aggressive goals

In this post, I want to define what constitutes very very aggressive goals, run though their upsides and downsides for both managers and employees, and finally  discuss the practical implications for consultants who deal with organizations which have very very aggressive goals.

For the sake of this post, a very very aggressive goal is a goal which requires very hard work (often but not always) over a protracted period of time within a rigid and non-negotiable set of stringent budget, performance and quality requirements. Very very aggressive goals are often not achievable without some “slippage” or retreat , especially schedule, budget or “scope retreat”.

Why do organizations set very very aggressive goals?

1) To promise a key client something that they are demanding. Example: upgrade your last release or we will uninstall your software from our system.

2) To help build the career of a key decision maker. Example: Colonel Yair wants to use his unit to take out the enemy, because he is up for promotion in a few months.

3) In order to survive. Example: Ghetto Warsaw uprising. Or competitor emerges with prices that will destroy your market share. Or life saving medicine in a pandemic.

4) To gain huge strategic advantage in a very short time. Example: an application in the area of cyber security in a state under constant immediate threat.

Now let’s look at very very aggressive goals’ impact of various populations:

1 Employees

Newer employees and fresh meat can be very motivated by very very aggressive goals because of the platform it provides to shine quickly and get ahead without the tedious process of seniority slowly down the runway to promotion.

Veteran employees, who have seen this all before, take out their protective armor which includes making the “right” promises, “apparently agreeing”, prepare excuses and think who can be blamed when the shit hits the fan. “I did my piece but the specs we got were not accurate”, or “the client doesn’t know his ass from his elbow”.

I cannot overstate the protective armor that staff develops against very very aggressive goals. Example, “I won’t start working hard yet, because when the pressure really comes, I will already have ruined my family life”.

As Bangalore based OD guru Dr Joseph George points out in his comments below,  “sustainable achievements require a psychologically safe work environment in which one can attend to challenges as they occur, and deal with the stress of taking on initiatives that look promising, before they are completed”. The veteran recognizes the threat; the newcomers sees only the opportunity.

 

2 Managers

Middle managers are in a real quandary.  To maintain the trust with their employees, they need to listen to and factor in all the constraints and problems that surface to them, which often force them to ask the men in charge for more time and resources. The middle manager is often very aware that some goals are undoable, but cannot say so freely.

The senior managers at first often whip their horses more often than they plan to. Then, they pooh pooh away constraints, they show disdain for defeatism, they eventually start to hear only what they want to. They show little fear when they see cracks in the wall, but rather anger at the “incompetence of the troops”. Finally, senior managers craft stories about why the goals were not achieved: “circumstance changed”; the market changed-and/or they chop off a head or two and or pull off  a reorg which buys time from the board or key stakeholders. In other words, they provide a context that paints the failure as a non-failure, pushing forward doomsday to a later date.

3) OD consultants

I have been falsely accused of explaining how not to do OD,  and not focusing on what needs to done. Anyone who reads this blog knows what this is not true. I have  written many posts on how to deal with over-commitments and I will provide a few links. Like this. And this.

Now,  some practical tips on how to consult with companies whose goals are very very  aggressive:

The key to understand how to do successful consulting in such a situation is to understand how the organization will eventually de commit. (Goffman calls this process  “cooling the mark”.)

The first step and the most critical is bridging between what the managers say and what the employees know. 

De-commitment from the initial commitment may look like this:-

  1. Wow wow wow-we can do it.
  2. We are doing our best.
  3. There are some difficulties but we are confident
  4. There are some features we want to improve and this will take time,
  5. We will do “phased delivery”,
  6. We have a crisis!
  7. Renegotiation.

My experience is that the OD consultant needs to initially try two or three tricks that are known a priori will not be fully effective, yet will allow the gradual breaking of very bad news to the CEO. Interventions may include “coaching” for the head of R&D or one of his teams, various team building sessions or whatever. Within a month of two of OD being commissioned, “things are in process and while there is some improvement”, this change is not fast enough; then the management team can stop perfuming the pig both internally and with the client and come clean.

My experience also has taught me never to lose the trust of the programmers/first line employees. I once consulted on a project which management thought was “almost all done” while proof of design was severely flawed. I resisted all attempts to consult  people to “manage their priorities better-aka work even harder”. The moment that a Dilbert  feels that a consultant is there to apply pressure, the Dilbert  starts lying to you as well.

My experience has also taught me in situations of severe over commitment, people who “step up to the plate” and try to “make the impossible happen” may be very opportunistic and looking for a short term PR win. There are no fast fixes when the gap between the commitment and reality are too large. The OD consultant must be wary of factoring in commitment from these heroes-in-waiting.

Finally, 5 things you may not know about very very aggressive  commitments.

1 Culture counts. Risk tolerant cultures accept very very aggressive commitments because they are more tolerant about failure.

2 Very very aggressive commitments can be achieved especially when the winds of luck blow in the right direction.

3  Truth and facts die in an organization whose OS (operating system)  is based on constant very very aggressive goals. No one ends up knowing what is doable.

4 There are some very successful organizations which over commit and under deliver. In the real world of course, not in OD text books.

5 Very very aggressive commitments do breed positive by products in the short term-short cuts, risk taking and in-house innovation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Learning not to plan-and not worrying about it

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”, said world champion boxing champion Mike Tyson. Very wise words, not only in the ring.

Corona has struck us in the face. And the new variants of the corona virus may well do the trick and finally  teach the world how to deal more effectively with exceedingly prolonged ambiguity as an ongoing state of affairs.

For the middle east and third world, this is nothing new. There simply is no clarity in the middle east. Everything is up in the air and unknown. Leaders are fickle; geopolitics are like volcanos which rumble and spit out periodic lava, and there is no rhyme and even less reason. It is what it is-unknown.

As a result of this, Israelis for example see planning as a waste of time or a ritual one has to go though to please those who come from more stable environments, in which planning is the staple of life, as in-“shall we book a trip to Tenerife this summer?”

  • “Will the bus I am travelling on explode?”-let’s hope not.
  • “Is the guy who just got on the minibus a terrorist?”-let’s not think about that.
  • “Is it safe to take Road 6 or is it being targeted from Gaza?”-drive to road 6; you cannot let terror guide your everyday decisions.
  • “Can we book a room in Jerusalem?”-is it ever safe to go anywhere?

In many third world countries as well, people know better than to plan all that much. You miss a train-maybe the next one is in a day or two-or next week. Maybe. Or-a typhon puts the internet service out of service, for a month or two, or six. And that apartment  I just rented in that new building-will it be ready in 2 weeks, or perhaps two years? Is that a real cop at the intersection, or a crook? 

So my western friends, join the club. Life is now one big unknown. The world health crisis has not caused a bad case of disruption as much as it has replaced order with constant and ongoing, endless disruption playing havoc with our adaptive mechanisms. And put this is your pipe and smoke it: Planning is counter indicated when the semblance of order has vanished.

It makes much more sense to focus on now, the next 100 meters ahead of us, the next few days. Less vision-more bread and potatoes. More fun-less anxiety. More que sera, sera-and less tight-ass attempts to stay young, healthy forever, and “ahead of the curve”.

All of this has a huge impact on the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of OD, in terms of our focus upon changing, as opposed to adapting to, reality. We have far less control that OD as a profession would leave us to believe.

But that’s another post-although I would love to read your comments about that.

 

 

 

 

 

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How covid has impacted relationship-enabled business cultures

There are cultures that get most things done by leveraging personal relationships (and even by trading so-called favours)  to speed up or by-pass process, get things done now, clean up later and solve routine as well as stubborn, irritating problems.

Example-Simon needs an electrician to check out  wiring at station 3 after a repair. He calls Vlad, who is about to go home, to “do me a favour and check out station 3 now because I don’t want to come in early tomorrow morning for your scheduled inspection.” Vlad agrees; deal done. And Simon owns Vlad a favour.

Another example: Todd from Engineering and Chava  from Purchasing  take part in face to face management offsite for next-generation managers. Todd’s requests gets preferential treatment from Chava whilst Chava never gets push-back from Todd when she prefers a certain vendor with whom the firm has a special relationship, albeit their poor level of customer service.

And then came covid. Offsite done by Teams.  Todd and Chava’s relationship has cooled. Simon and Vlad have not had breakfast and lunch together in over a year due to “covid capsules”. Relationships have cooled. No favours exchanged. No short cuts. Nada.

Zoom calls, Whatsapp groups and other “colder” avenues of communication have taken the “warmth” away from the task. The task is a cold thing that needs to be done. No one needs to be cajoled or appreciated. Work needs to be done.

All cultures find this transition somewhat difficult. Other cultures find it crippling.

To be more exact, in cultures where relationships formed from doing tasks, the transition to the covid and semi-post covid mode is a minor and unpleasant challenge.

In cultures where good relationships served as a platform for getting tasks done, the “carpet” has been swept away and getting things done is a nightmare.

Symptoms of the “carpet being swept away” include  a slow down in getting issues resolved, mutual blaming, far more cover-my-ass-communication and lots of things stuck in the pipeline waiting for escalation.

So-what are the solutions? To be honest, I have none that bring us close to what the situation was before covid.  On-line happy hours, sharing personal experiences remotely and a million other tricks I have read about don’t cut the chase. 

(Or maybe I am too old? After all, I preferred standing in line to order movie tickets outside the theatre rather than ordering tickets on-line.)

However if you are finding it hard to do get along well with people who come from relationship-driven business culture, I suggest: travelling to meet them as soon as possible, talking about things other than “work”, sharing mutual interests, small talk before and after meetings, coordinating strategies before meetings, and trying to avoid trust-busting escalations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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