Sometimes work sucks.
Your colleagues can be morons, your bosses seem incompetent, your clients are clueless and... wait, no, not again, NOT AGAIN... someone finished off the coffee in the break room without starting a new pot.
Competence, let alone excellence, can often seem like a lost cause. In many cases, it can seem like the only way to get your organization from whatever it is today to something resembling excellence is to (figuratively) burn it to the ground and start fresh. While that path may be potentially cathartic I’d like to suggest a slightly different approach that starts with a simple idea that has the power to transform organizations of any size.
I often worry that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that organizations are comprised of people. Individual people who face a multitude of decisions everyday about how productive, engaged, and motivated they're going to be. Individuals who have their own intrinsic interests, motivations, quirks, pet peeves, conscious and sub-conscious desires, and proclivities for growth, challenge, security, and tolerance for ambiguity. What would happen if organizational improvement was re-framed in such a way that these individuals with all their strengths and weaknesses took center stage? Instead of being cogs that help run this system or follow that process individuals become the drivers and agents of positive organizational change.
In a nutshell, here's my basic idea -- if you have 1,000 people in your organization what would it look like if all 1,000 of them got 1% "better" (more productive, more inclined toward action, more reflective, more thoughtful, more engaged, more motivated, more empathetic, more whatever it is that you need more of in your organization)? And not only 1% better one time, but 1% better everyday. For years.
A traditional take on getting the organization to "work better" often includes one or more of the following: restructuring, arbitrary rules or guidelines from "the boss", requiring the use of a new piece of software or process for doing something, and threats. Each of these approaches ignores the fact that we're dealing with human beings. Human beings who have a remarkable ability to adapt, a desire to do meaningful work, and powerful intrinsic motivation toward feeling autonomous, competent, and related to each other (e.g. see Self-Determination Theory). These approaches can be attractive because they have the appearance of making broad change very swiftly. A memo here, a decree there, some newly installed software here, some training, maybe a workshop or two and voilà, organizational change!
Not so much.
What would encouraging your people to get 1% better (whatever that looks like for your organization) look like? What barriers would need to be lifted? What changes would need to be made to the organizational environment or culture to encourage people to push themselves to get better? How do you facilitate the trust among a group of people that makes someone feel safe enough to take the step outside their comfort zone that growth requires? What kind of leadership does that require?
Answering those questions for your specific organization and context takes time, experimentation, and effort. What works for your company may not work for someone else's. A good starting point, though, are some examples of what 1% better in various areas might look like at your organization:
Everybody developing the habit to constantly ask "what's the next action?"
Encouraging people to keep a log of what they've worked on to help build momentum and a sense of progress (with iDoneThis, perhaps?)
Developing the expectation that you will leave a meeting crystal clear about the decisions that have been made and who is doing what
Starting and ending meetings on time as a matter of course
Being vigilant in finding and rooting out friction and small annoyances borne of inattention
Cultivating the ability to concentrate when working on a tough problem
Developing a healthy relationship with information overload and digital distractions
Not sending unimportant/non-urgent emails to colleagues on evenings and weekends
Giving a coworker the benefit of doubt when hit with unpleasantness from them
Leaving work each day with a plan for tomorrow
Not being afraid to ask a question versus toiling in uncertainty
I think you get where I'm going with this. None of these ideas have anything to do with mandates "from the top," new systems, new processes, or mass organizational upheaval or restructuring. In fact most of these may seem asininely simple. That's what's so beautiful and maddening about this entire topic -- all of our work lives would be so much better and our organizations more effective if everyone took the asinine, the simple, and the obvious more seriously. Each of these ideas are about individual people being a little bit courageous and a little bit driven to make their immediate experience at work a little bit better.
I've experienced this as a virtuous cycle, a positive upward spiral inspired by the people around me. I notice the people in my team getting a little bit better, being more on top of their game, and pushing themselves a little bit more and it causes me to do the same. Nobody likes the feeling of being left behind. I stop showing up to meetings late after the fifth meeting in a row a key decision was made without me in the room because I was late. I stop turning in projects late when the norm in the department becomes promptness. Social comparison can be a powerful force (and not just for keeping up with the Joneses). I get better, my team notices, and they get even better. And then I get better. And so on.Oversimplification? Perhaps.I'll admit, I make it seem simpler than it is. How do you handle social loafers, out of touch management, or a scarcity of resources that precludes any thought of getting better because it takes every bit of effort to simply survive? How do you go about hiring, retaining, and promoting the type of person who is energized by the idea of getting a little bit better every day? How do you cultivate the culture that supports this mindset? All of these are tough, honest, and relevant questions.
But, for now, let's just sit with the idea of what everyone in your organization getting 1% better in whatever metrics matter to your organization would look like. We’ll tackle those challenges in time but we can’t do anything if we’re not on board with the idea that we can each be a little bit better and that the idea of getting better isn’t insane. Not saying it won’t be difficult, just that it’s possible, right?
Making your organization better is going to have to start with you. Here’s a couple ideas to get you started:
Assess your typical day/workflows and figure out what is less than optimal in whatever manner matters to you. Make a list.
Take one item off that list and figure out a couple ways you could address it. Hate the weekly staff meeting? See if you can figure out a way to make it a tiny bit better. At the very least, you have control over your portion of the meeting and how prepared you are. Try to set a high bar for everyone else.
Before you leave work today take a look at your calendar, your to-do list, and everything else you have going on and make a plan for the first 90 minutes of your day tomorrow. What can you do to ensure tomorrow will be a tiny bit better today?
Have other ideas? Share your thoughts about how you plan to get 1% better in the comments below!