Recent political and social events are telling us that people in society are feeling powerless. One simple example is the decreasing attendance at the voting booth, particularly among the young. It appears that a great many people have “given up”, just want to do their job, whatever it is, and call it a day. Volunteerism is on the decline for this reason. There is a parallel effect inside organizations.

The Effect of Power Down

Despite attempts at other designs, most organizations today continue to operate under the traditional functional hierarchy. This is the pyramid structure that stretches from the base, where most of the employees that “do” are located, to the peak, where a single person “directs” the strategy and activity of the organization. In between are those who “manage”, i.e. who try and interpret strategic direction from on high to those in the trenches below. What emerged in the 20th century was the Paternalistic Organization, whose role it was to ensure a “career” for the participants in the organization.

Over the past 40 years or so, the Paternalistic Organization has eroded to the point where in many respects, it’s “every man for himself.” If you can’t be productive, then out you go. The problem with this kind of focus on productivity is that most organizations don’t have the means to allow their employees to be productive and contribute fully to start with. Management theorists have spoken about the need to “empower” or “enable” employees. In practical terms, this should mean providing the employee with the working environment and the skills-set that will give them the best chance to contribute in a very real way to the organization. However, by the time executive management figures out the strategic direction of the organization and managers interpret this into operational terms, the employee who is delivering the product or service of the organization is severely limited not only in what he or she can contribute but the means by which to do so. In harsher terms, it is the organization itself embodied in its management that is limiting the employee’s capacity to contribute. Nor does the employee get any sense that whatever he or she does will actually be accepted or appreciated by the organization. Rewards schemes are paltry attempts to “improve motivation” or “nurture innovation” inside most organizations that neither wish to understand the employee’s motivation nor endure any form of innovation. If you then pile on other social constructs such as legacy-based conflicts between men and women (where women are still paid less than men for the same job), you end up with an organization that has to keep a huge contingent of employees that are operating far below their potential because they feel that they can’t.

The Question vs. the Answer

Human beings are pushed towards having an answer, or the solution to a problem. The issue of productivity in the organization needs careful framing of three key questions first, i.e.:

  1. Why does the organization exist?
  2. What does it deliver?
  3. How does it deliver?

Anyone reading these questions would think: “Oh ya, we do that… It’s part of our planning process.” The reality is that most organization that ask these questions – if they do – provide a quick and automatic response, rather than thinking them through. The “Why” is absolutely essential: it is the one question whose well-thought out answer will inspire and drive productivity. The “What” shouldn’t be answered until the fundamental purpose of the organization is clear, much less the “How”.