Tuesday, July 30, 2013

You Need A Goal

You’ve heard this before – probably a hundred times – you need a clear goal.

Call it what you will, the goal is what you are really trying to do.  There has been a lot written about goals, much of it confusing as hell.  (I used to think I understood the difference between goals and vision, but then I read a whole bunch of ‘Goals, Visions and Guiding Principles’ statements from a whole bunch of major organizations and I decided either they were loony or I was.  I opted for the former.)

The Goal is what you really want to achieve, the end point: Win the World Series, Defeat Nazi Germany, ‘Land a Man on the Moon and return him safely to earth in this decade,’ marry George Bailey and live in the old Granville house (Mary Hatch, It’s a Wonderful Life).

But, getting to the point where you can write down a clear goal is not as easy as it seems.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of us are not at all clear on our goals, either our personal goals or our professional ones.  I have sat down with any number of heads of businesses, and other organizations, helping them to craft a ‘strategic plan,’ a plan to move their organization – and themselves – forward.  Time and again I have been struck by how few of them are really clear on where the company or organization is headed or where they are headed.

The easiest thing to do is to identify some dollar figure: ‘increase annual sales to X.’ Of course, that can be questioned simply by asking: ‘at the expense of profits?’ That will lead to the question of sustaining profits, which implies capital investment, or are you going for a ‘quick kill?’  The goal is starting to look a bit more complicated.  Trying to answer the question of the real goal of an organization simply with a number can be done, but it requires the careful selection of that number: profit (pre-tax or post-tax, EBIT, EBITDA; one year, sustained, etc.), market share (national, North America, world wide), etc.  Making a goal two numbers can make a plan too complicated – and can lead to missing the forest for the trees. 

Thus, a number of years ago one of the larger auto manufacturers set out a goal of maximizing their market share by a certain year.  They almost got there, but in so doing they focused on turning out more cars and missed the changes in the world-wide market to increased reliability and lower fuel consumption.  About the time that they nearly reached their target goal they found themselves years behind their competitors and they have spent the following couple of decades trying to catch up to the rest of the industry in quality and performance of their fleet writ large.

This kind of thing happens in virtually every industry: people who are good at managing the organization, and often gifted engineers or accountants, etc., fail to develop and sustain a ‘big picture’ of their industry or a concomitant goal that will be able to deal with developments in that industry.  Four decades ago the US military was buying aircraft and systems from a wide range of companies, most of whom do not exist today except perhaps as a name tagged onto that of another company, and usually not even there.

The company that built the Saturn V that took man to the moon, and the Apollo capsule that brought them back, as well as the B-1 bomber and the space shuttle – North American Aviation – no longer exists, after being bought up by Rockwell, and then Rockwell splitting up in the 1990s.  It is said that the average billion dollar a year corporation lasts just 12 years.

If you are going to survive and thrive, you not only need to know where you are headed – you need a goal – but you also need one that makes sense and will leave you in at least as sound a position when you get there as you are when you start.  Figuring out that goal isn’t easy and it most assuredly won’t be quick.  But you need to ‘sit down’ and figure out exactly what is the goal of your organization, and while you are at it, what are your personal goals. 

Both will take time, and soul searching.  It will require that you be painfully honest with yourself, and it sometimes (almost always) requires that you bring into your organization someone you can trust completely.  But is also is fair to say that if you do not have a clear goal, everything else you do after that is going to go astray.

Is there a procedure, a step-by-step means to get to that clear goal?  There is, and I will discuss it tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Organizational Inertia

There was an article in the local paper this morning about a vet who had served more than 20 years in the military, multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, has a disability and is now meeting general apathy from the people in the Veteran’s Administration as he tries to move his disability package through the system.

The comment that I found interesting was that he had been through more than 20 years of service, multiple deployments, wounded, etc., and ‘it means nothing to them.’

Correct.  It means nothing to them.  And there is a lesson to be drawn from that.

The Veteran’s Administration is, like the rest of the government, a large bureaucracy.  It functions just like every other bureaucracy.  And that’s the point: bureaucracies don’t care about ‘you’ or anything outside the walls of the bureaucracy.  This isn’t said to be derisive, rather it is an observation that has been shared by thousands throughout history.

To begin, we need to recognize the difference between any organization and the people within it.  Every organization – large or small - has a ‘personality’ of its own.  As the organization ages, that ‘personality’ becomes more pronounced and more difficult to change.  As the organization grows in size the ‘personality’ again becomes more entrenched.  Very large organizations develop very well complex ‘personas’ that are often substantially more complex than any human being.  Anyone who has been in the military can attest that there is really an entity out there called ‘the Army,’ ‘the Navy,’ ‘the Air Force,’ and in particular ‘the Marine Corps.’ 

And, while it is possible to substantially change any organization in its first few years of life, as the organization ages the persona’s resistance to change will become more and more pronounced.  While there are any number of reasons for this, two that are critical to this organizational inertia are Rules and People.

Rules: As any organization matures and develops it will propagate rules on ‘how things are done.’  At first, these rules will focus on just a few key issues, issues that are at the center of the goals of the organization.  But within a relatively short period of time the rules will begin to expand, reaching ‘down’ into the organization and driving into ever greater detail: expanding from what must be done to what specific people are to do to how they are to do it and finally to how they must act while doing it.  The rules develop to protect ‘the Army Way’ or ‘the Navy Way’ or ‘the XYZ Corp. Way.’

People: During the first few days, months, years of any organization the people are believers, focused on the goals of the organization with a burning desire that these goals be achieved – ‘come hell or high water.’  They were there at the start and they share a sense of ‘ownership’ in the original purpose of the organization.  But as the original leadership depart and are replaced by managers – even bright and well-intentioned ones – and as the ‘rank and file’ are replaced not by believers but by people simply looking for a decent job, the focus of the people shifts from those great, overarching ‘goals’ to maintenance, to sustainment, to stasis.

This is particularly true of government bureaucracies.  Few if any people grow up hoping to some day be a clerk at the Department of Agriculture.  The vast majority of the people working in government bureaucracies work there not because they fervently believe in the goals of the organization as stated in the yearly “Strategy Statement” that nobody reads, but because they need to work someplace and there was a job available.  This is true even in organizations that have a reputation for promoting commitment to higher goals, organizations such as the Army or Navy.

Government organizations in particular – and in the end the government itself – evolve very rapidly over time so that within just a few years of being established they begin to focus on one thing, and one thing only: sustaining themselves, or what can be more easily termed ‘survival.’  Nothing else really matters.  Nearly everything else the bureaucracy does can be thought of as theater, something that is done to make certain that those ‘outside’ see the ‘right things,’ to convince the majority of them that the organization is doing some close to what it is supposed to be doing.

Thus the Department of Energy attempts to manage oil leases and the Department of Education passes out student loan money and the Department of Agriculture inspects food and the Department of Defense maintains the military.  Etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.   But, the simple truth is that governments have no inner moral compass that keeps them focused on staying within the law as well as focused on the good of the people.  They never have and never will.  They focus on two things, the only two ‘tangibles’ in government: power, and the tool of power – money.

So, what is the lesson to be drawn from all this?  Simply this: anyone who wishes to change the direction of any organization must begin with an understanding of the organizational inertia that needs to be overcome to affect any real change.  The Persona of that organization, particularly as embodied in its Rules and its People, will need to be changed if you wish to institute real change.  Failure to do so will result in cosmetic changes only and all your work will be of no permanent consequence.