ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

May 1999


Kid's Stuff

Quality On Trial: Achieving Success At A Law Firm

Baskin Robbins' Best Flavor

Kung Fu Theatre


Let's Go To The Oasis
by Peter Block


Sorry We're Closed: Diary Of A Shutdown

Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Sites Unseen

Views For A Change

Myron Kellner-Rogers responds:
I have a client—an oil company—currently in the midst of a major organization-wide change initiative. The need for transformative change became clear when leaders recognized that their organization was at peak performance, given the philosophy and system of management they were using. With dramatic turbulence within the industry, that peak performance was not enough to survive and thrive. To change results required changing the way things were done, and the organization set out on a journey into uncharted waters, seeking a new way of working together that would raise the performance bar, changing what was possible and the meaning of excellence for everyone.

When Recognition Hurts
On this journey, they discovered islands of incoherence—places where judging excellence was a contradiction of the destination they were seeking. Recognition systems were such a place. The annual “Chairman’s Award”—an important and highly visible recognition—was being awarded to people who had achieved exceptional technical results, yet had achieved them in a way that was congruent with who the company was, not who it hoped to be. The message to the organization was murky. People questioned the commitment of leaders to a new way of working together. Armed with evidence about what really mattered, based on what was recognized, resisters of the change felt vindicated. Believers felt at least confused, if not abandoned. The hallway whispering rose to a clamor as people sought to make sense about what this recognition meant. Forward motion on change initiatives became difficult.

Recognition as Story-telling
Recognition is important. It elevates the invisible activity of people doing their best to visible mythology of the organizational culture. Recognition is not just for the recognized—it’s for all of us. Recognition creates the story we tell each other, a description of who we are, what we value and how we value it. So, what is the story you want to tell? Who will the heroes be?

Stories that are rich in texture and possibilities are the ones that excite us. The ones that tell not just of an adventure, but of the whole journey, with inner and outer landscapes drawn for us. We get to identify with the characters and they present us with new possibilities for resolving the conflicts we each face. Are we telling the stories that define for us the path to whom we might become together? Of who we need to be, given the world in which we live? What are the lessons we are teaching each other?

I imagine that some of the questions you are wrestling with here are created by a false assumption that it’s possible to separate technical achievement from, what you call, “fluff.” Yet every technical result is achieved via a complex web of interdependencies and interactions. Every result was achieved by a process. Can we be sure that the achievements we recognize are coherent with how we need to be working together, as well as what work we need to be doing? Can we tell a story that is rich in texture, that encompasses a definition of what success around here needs to mean?

What Does Outstanding Mean?
The definition of “outstanding” is critical. People notice what is valued and search for what it means in the smallest details of the story. If the definition is limited to just a few factors—technical performance, productivity, cost savings, to name a few—people may determine that those areas are more critical than how the results were achieved. Recognition signals to people what they need to focus on and, by omission, what’s unimportant. Another story helps.

One organization I work with has a construction function responsible for complex building projects that serve the organization. The function had historically been rife with cost overruns and missed deadlines. A new manager was dispatched. In a short time, he and his team achieved exceptional success on the key metrics, and their outstanding performance led to new stories about performance that really mattered.

After awhile, it became clear that this manager’s methods were brutal, leaving bad relationships with business units (his customers) and contractors. The metrics were met: crippled relationships, reduced capacity and lack of learning were the price. People told dark stories and wondered, “Was this outstanding performance?”

The test for “outstanding” performance, in any endeavor in your organization, is how congruent the experience is with who you believe you need to be as an organization, in the context in which you operate.

Does the work in question represent an innovative expression, a new realization of the mission, vision, values and strategy of the organization?
Does it create a new story about how to deal with critical challenges?
Does this story reveal who we need to be as we do the work we need to do?

As you explore these questions, you’ll begin to recognize performance that is the “outstanding” expression of becoming who and what you need to become as an organization.

Most of us want to love our organizations. We want them to live up to our greatest desires for ourselves and each other. In this time of turbulence in our environment, we need to see our aspirations for our organization brought to life in the stories we tell. We need to recognize who we are and who we might become. Our recognition programs can create the new story we need to tell each other to keep us on the path.

Dave Farrell Responds

May '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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