The Right Way…

By Guy Higgins

Leaders have to get things done. It is very difficult to do that when the organization becomes too big. Okay, how big is too big, and what does the leader do about it? “Too big” isn’t very big at all in modern terms. I think that “too big” is any organization larger than Dunbar’s Number. (largest number of people that can maintain a solid relationship with one another). Dunbar’s Number lies somewhere between 100 and 250 – at least I haven’t seen any assertions outside that range. So, an organization larger than about 100 people starts to get too big for a leader to “run” by herself. Being smart, she starts to organize and create parts of the organization small enough to be run by one person. As the organization grows, those smaller parts begin to need even smaller parts. Pretty soon, the Leader (the top of the hierarchy) sees inefficiency throughout her organization because there are borders or boundaries between all the small and smaller parts of the organization. These boundaries hinder the free flow of information and cooperation between the organizational parts. I’ll use a term from electrical engineering for that hindrance – I’ll call it impedance. The Leader understands this and calls the leaders who work for her together and tasks them to develop ways to work together and eliminate this impedance. These leaders, being smart people too, develop some standard ways of working together – within and across organizational boundaries. They create processes and workflows. The Leader looks out and sees that this is good.

Ah, but now, the Second Law of Thermodynamics rears its ugly head, and the processes and workflows start to become less efficient and effective. Formally, the Second Law states that in any closed system, entropy (disorder) will increase. Informally, the Second Law means that, left to itself, everything goes to the devil. Impedance seems to be creeping back into the organization. The Leader calls her leaders together again and asks why this is so. Her leaders tell her that their people, who are smart, hard working and dedicated, have begun to improve the way that they work within each of the parts of the organization, but these improvements are a little bit different in each of the organizational parts and those differences are raising the impedance. Drat! The Leader tasks her leaders with figuring out a way to eliminate this growing impedance. Her leaders, who are smart, decide that they will establish common processes and mandate the use of those common processes across the organization. Operating in accordance with these common processes will be the Right Way to do things.

Sure enough, impedance goes away and things in the organization get done – the right way. Then (sometime later), reviewing her organizational metrics, the Leader notices that her organizational productivity, which had been constantly increasing, has leveled off – in fact, in some parts of the organization, it has declined some. The Leader ponders this and decides it is not good. She reconvenes her leaders and asks them some penetrating questions:

  • Is everyone working in accordance with the common processes? Yes
  • Are the workers still committed to doing good work? Yes
  • Is worker morale good? Not so much

She thanks her leaders and starts to think about what is going on across her organization. People were making improvements in the way that they worked – they were doing the right thing and improving their processes and workflows. But that allowed impedance to creep back into the overall processes and workflows. Common processes fixed the impedance problem but seem to have constrained the opportunity for the workers to make process improvements and raise productivity. In fact, some of the workers may be unhappy because the common processes eliminated improvements that they had made within their part of the organization. They were feeling ill used. The Leader thought hard about this situation – common processes were important in eliminating organizational impedance by ensuring that the workers did things the right way, but common processes also constrained workers from improving the processes within their part of the organization – from doing the Right Thing. She thought hard about this. Obviously, she could establish formal teams to coordinate proposed process improvements across the organization, but that would introduce its own impedance into the system.

The Right Way or the Right Thing?

Our Leader calls her leaders together, explains her thinking and solicits ideas and solutions (in a cognitively diverse manner). She listens carefully and frequently summarizes the developing line of thought, asking pointed questions and allowing her leaders to move in the direction of creating a lean, workable solution. Her leaders are still smart people, so it doesn’t take them long to arrive at that solution. They will meet with their workers and explain the problem. Then they will explain the approach they developed to solve the problem – the workers will still be required to follow the common processes; do things the right way. But, the workers will also be empowered to improve the parts of the common processes in which they work – with the caveat that each worker must coordinate improvements with any worker whose own work will be affected by that improvement. None of that coordination will require formal approval, merely documentation of the improvement. The only constraint on improvements is that organizational performance (as captured by the metrics) may not decline in the longer term (the leaders recognize that some improvements can be disruptive when first implemented, but that such disruption fades as the process improvement becomes familiar to the workers).

The moral of the story is that large organizations can find themselves working in ways that are not well aligned with the organizational goals – because people are doing their work the right way but not always doing the right thing. As with much leadership, achieving the balance between the right way and the right thing is not easy and requires the leaders (and the Leader) to invest energy. Recall that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is about a “closed system” – i.e. one in which nothing, no matter and, more importantly, no energy can come in or go out. The job of the leaders, in this case, is to inject energy into the system to create and maintain that balance. If organizational leaders leave processes and workflows to themselves without regularly injecting energy by empowering their workers and reminding them to do things the right way while also doing the right thing, those processes and workflows will go to the devil – it’s the law.


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