by Peter Block
Have You Hugged Your Goalie
Business News Briefs
In the late 1980s, virtually all of
the large company clients that I served had a plethora of
task forces, committees and ad hoc groups aimed at
improving the quality of their operations and outputs,
and in some cases their work cultures and environments.
These groups, for the most part, were comprised of a mix
of cross-disciplinary subject matter experts, process
specialists, supervisors/managers, representatives drawn
from line operations and usually one or more outside
consultants. Often their purpose was to translate
highly-developed quality improvement processes and tools
from well-known experts to the processes and products of
their specific company. Their scope varied considerably,
but usually they focused on the predictable and repeating
processes of their enterprises. These groups worked with
time frames that ran from many months to even years.
Their processes often involved carefully planned
information gathering, detailed data analysis, elaborate
modeling and sophisticated solution testing. In many
cases these committees and task forces generated elegant,
integrated new models for various business
Now in the late 1990s, I only know of a few task forces and groups with these same purposes and parameters. During the early 1990s many corporate leaders made the assessment that these multi- dimensional teams were too theory and method oriented, too costly in human and financial terms, and too slow to deliver their promised results. They came to the conclusion that their marketplaces were changing too fast—and that they and their workers could not productively sustain the major investment of time, attention and rigor needed to bring many full quality improvement approaches to fruition. This was especially true as changes in industries, technologies and marketplaces accelerated at breath-taking rates. Some of the slower developing, longer-term problem-solving and quality improvement groups saw their efforts become moot as they and their members were by passed and swallowed up by the very changes they were intended to manage.
Today, many of these companies are
focused far more on short-term business planning and
achievement of immediate results. As a result, these
organizations are pouring their time, effort and money
into direct action project teams and the systems that
will maximize their networks, information flow and market
While these ways of working have not yet been fully proven over time, they provide managers with the sense that they can direct and redirect their workforces with far more rapidity and flexibility than in previous years.
While I have mixed reactions to these developments over the past 10 years, I applaud two of the outcomes that I see from these trends. First, more employees of more company's are being drawn into an awareness and engagement in the core entrepreneurial endeavors of their businesses. Second, an over reliance on outside ideas and experts is frequently being replaced by a realization that “we have to do this for ourselves.” As a result, I believe that more workers are becoming more knowledgeable about and accountable for their part in their companies success or failure. No longer is it just "up to someone else” at a different or higher level to figure out what is the right way to proceed with products, services and customers.
On the other hand, the human cost of some of these shifts seems high. The combination of the short-term business focus of many teams and the characteristics of the “new employment contract” (with its emphasis on individual marketability and flexibility) make it ever more difficult for employees to find a solid, reliable base from which to learn, grow and invest in meaningful ways in their companies' sustained success.
I see the most effective leaders in companies now doing at least two things. First, they are applying the best of what they learned from the change technologies and longer-term quality improvement teams of this decade, even in the midst of this fast-moving, “just in time” era. Second, they are finding ways to balance their investments in short-term business and system needs with comparable investments in their employees on-going learning, skills and development as contributors.