Valuing Behaviors that Indicate Organizational Mediocrity
Hello! Once again, I’m feeling pretty excited to be doing some actual free-form writing on the blog. As best I can tell, I typically write an average of about 1,500 words per day. And since many of those no longer go toward my (now draft complete) book, they can go toward other things. For instance, sharing my thoughts on organizational mediocrity.
Over time, I’ve observed a growing list of organizations in action. Usually, these heavily involve tech, or else I wouldn’t get a phone call. But the actual purpose, shape and size of these places varies considerably.
All organizations tend to share some common ground, however. For instance, at any kind of scale, they tend to form themselves into pyramids. They also tend to make rules targeting their lowest common denominator. But today I’d like to focus on a different, subtler commonality.
Organizations trend toward mediocrity by valuing apparently beneficial behaviors. I’ll chalk these behaviors up as locally maximizing; they make tactical sense and create strategic messes. Companies and society both value them in individuals. But, counter-intuitively, encouraging them in your organization paves the road to hell with good intentions.
Over-Valuation of Company Shop Knowledge
What fault could anyone find with this? The more you understand about the company and the domain, the more value you can offer. Right? After all, don’t companies often boast that no one really onboards in less than 10 months?
Strange as it seems, this comes with a downside. You might notice it most easily when you hang out at a new company (or client) and listen to someone tell you, with a straight face, “Alright, as soon as you head down to the BZ office, you’ll get your DDJs and be able to send them over to Paula for a QRX.” After you blink at them, they giggle and say, “oh, gosh, you know how it is with the TLA’s around here!”
Yes, I do! And you’ve been so kind as to status signal to me with your knowledge of them. I may not have a QRX, but I immediately recognize you as a card carrying idealist. But, more importantly, I recognize an organizational inefficiency. The company values that knowledge in a zero-sum, status-oriented sense, which encourages people to hoard it.
Efficient players in the commercial world automate themselves (or others) out of necessity on a long timeline. I consider this operational excellence. Figure out your task list, simplify it, and make everything easier for those that follow. Organizational mediocrity occurs when people hoard knowledge to demonstrate culture-status.
Do you ever brag about your double and triple booking in Outlook throughout the day? Do you half listen to 7 hours worth of meetings while checking your email, putting together a slide deck, and ordering groceries from Amazon? And do you then tell people, “I’m an excellent multi-tasker?”
In the corporate space, we tend to value this apparent skill. We may even write it into job descriptions. But the idea of actually multi-tasking doesn’t pass the smell test. You don’t do two tasks simultaneously and well. You do them both badly, or else you completely ignore one. The example I just mentioned of 4 things at once? Pfft. You’re not doing all of those things. You’re ignoring the meeting, leaving power point open while doing nothing with it, deleting emails you should keep, and ordering the wrong kind of soda.
It’s like the old saying goes: “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly while you simultaneously do other things badly.”
If your company encourages this, it encourages mediocrity.
Be More Careful Next Time!
This I hear all the time. “I was executing our 32 step deployment process, outlined in this here Word document, and something went wrong! I guess I must have missed step 13c.”
“Be more careful next time!”
From time immemorial, humans have valued care in many contexts. A stitch, in time, saves nine. Measure twice, cut once. You get the idea. As an individual, taking care with important pursuits yields good results. As an organization, relying on individuals to take care yields organizational mediocrity.
“Be more careful,” from the company’s perspective, translates to “I have no strategy for preventing you from making manual errors, so I’ll just hope for the best.” For example, imagine that you, for whatever reason, tasked someone with reading through page after page of printouts, counting the number of occurrences of the letter “e.” Page after page, the person doing this mind-numbing, error prone work comes up with the wrong answer. “Be more careful!” Oh, right, that’ll fix it.
This exhortation offers a band-aid to the real issue. Why does the company depend on people to do error prone tasks. Organizational mediocrity reinforces this dependence. Organizational efficiency eliminates it.
If Everyone Would Just Remember To….
In a similar vein, we have another form of reliance on individuals. But this time, it has more to do with mind share.
Here, I’m talking about the idea that everyone should just remember to do such and such. “If every would just remember to log their hours each week, we’d have an excellent picture of how the department spends its time. And if everyone would just remember to go into Jira to fill out these three fields every day, we could have clarity on where things stood. Oh, and if everyone would just modify their commit comments to be JSON of the following format…” You get the idea.
This tracks closely with the wisdom of individuals taking care. Be careful, and remember to do the following important things. It hearkens back to us as children and students, with parents reminding us of all of the little household chores and teachers reminding us of all of our tasks as students. The good ones kept it all straight and got it all done. Not so much with the slackers.
Likewise, in the corporate world, the good workers remember all the things. The bad ones… well, not so much. But do you really want your workplace to hinge on a bunch of individuals executing a mental checklist by rote? I think not.
Just as organizational mediocrity emanates from “careful” execution of manual tasks, so too does it emanate from rote execution of extensive processes and checklists. If your employees spend all of their time dotting eyes and crossing t’s, they’re not writing prose, much less poetry.
In the end, I’m looking at things with a common theme in mind. When organizations rely on behaviors valued at the individual level, mediocrity can result. We become less than the sum of our parts that way.
Instead of relying on individuals to hoard knowledge, multi-task, carefully execute the mundane, and remember a bunch of rote procedures, assume that these things waste their time. Rather than heaping that burden upon everyone, build systems that take it on themselves. Automate checklists and rote work. Simplify your organization and its onboarding so as not to need the tribal knowledge. And give knowledge workers tasks that require concentration, rather than things they can get away with doing badly at the same time.
Don’t let the things we value in individuals stop you from asking for more from systems that organize them.