When we think of organisations, what comes to mind is the image of a well-oiled, finely-tuned machine humming smoothly to deliver products and services to customers. But our experience of organisations can sometimes feel like the croquet game in Alice in Wonderland with people doing their own thing, and often despite the best of intentions getting in each other’s way, with the all too rare occasion when everything seems to come together. It is very difficult to get organisations to work efficiently and effectively and even more difficult to sustain this way of working. But why is this so hard, and does it have to be this way? The question isn’t new. Several approaches for organisational alignment have been proposed – from the highly successful ‘federal decentralisation’ adopted by General Motors almost a century ago to the relatively recent and also very popular balanced scorecard. But many of us are still looking for the answer for our specific situation. When one keeps asking a question and don’t get an answer, maybe one needs to ask a different question. So what would the right question be?
One place to look is the motivation for this search. Why are we asking the question? When things don’t work as well we think they should, we often see a problem or an opportunity, and we all see the situation differently. So a good place to look might be the way each of us looks at what’s happening. And that’s where frameworks for thinking come into play. One way of thinking about the world is to describe it. A dip in customer satisfaction figures can be seen as just that, a change in the numbers that represent satisfaction. Another might be to look for an explanation why customer satisfaction has gone down, a cause-effect relationship that explains the dip. For example, a change in the company’s credit policy may have resulted in an increase in repayment amounts. A third way of looking at the issue might focus on actions specifically intended to increase customer satisfaction, an instrumental perspective. And a fourth might consider whether the company is delivering on what they have led the customer to expect from them, i.e. are they doing the right thing by the customer, a normative perspective.
So what can you do with this framework? Every situation can be seen from more than one perspective, and people tend to prioritise some perspectives over others. Some people are precise in the way they describe objects and events, while others tend to think in fuzzy terms. For example, you may know a sales person who can talk their way out of any situation without really saying much. Some people are very curious and want to understand how everything works. You might know a professorial type who is constantly asking questions, and in some cases even knows all the answers. Others are ultimate pragmatists who aren’t really interested in explanations of how things work, but are intensely focused on instrumental outcomes. Consider the stereotypical operations manager, the taciturn, crusty gravy-stains-on-the-tie type who hasn’t got time to consider how things work, but just knows exactly what to do to get things done And some people agonise endlessly over what’s right and wrong, sometimes at the expense of action. Consider the well-intentioned and otherwise intelligent colleague who just isn’t very good at making things happen. It can be an amusing and interesting exercise to try to understand the people around you based on where they sit on the four scales; descriptive, explanatory, instrumental and normative.
But what could this possibly have anything to do with organisational alignment? Well, the way we think tends to shape the way we look at what’s around us, but there’s more to it than that. And we’ll take a look at that in my next post.
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