How Can Organizational Philosophy Improve Results?


road trip

Are you a direct route or a scenic route person?

If you have ever been on a road trip with a group of people different from yourself, you have likely experienced the headaches that can result.  Even though you are in agreement on the final destination, they way in which you desire to get there is very different.

Several years ago,  I experienced this situation first hand.  The direct route individuals preferred to keep to the interstates, stop only when necessary, and get back on the road as quickly as possible. The idea was to get to the final destination as quickly as possible. For the scenic route individuals, the travel was part of the experience. Stopping for a relaxing meal or taking an unplanned detour were not out of the question.

While the trip was still great, these differences did lead to some miscommunication, confusion, and added stress.

It is not uncommon for similar situations to occur within our teams and organizations.  While we may be in agreement on the goals that we are pursuing, there is likely a multitude of viable ways to achieve them. If we are not careful, this can result in a very stressful and unproductive situation.

There is in each of us a stream of tendency, whether you choose to call it philosophy or not, which gives coherence and direction to thought and action.1 – Benjamin N. Cardozo

Whether we want to admit it or not, each individual on our team brings their own experiences, thoughts, and desires to the situation.  All of these individual differences inform how they will act in a given situation.  Our goal as leaders is to develop consistent performance across the team despite these individual differences.

The Compliance/Freedom Spectrum

Many leaders attempt to accomplish this through extreme emphasis on compliance. If we tell our team exactly what they should think and do in every situation, it will guarantee consistent performance.

Unless it doesn’t. In reality, this approach is far more likely to demotivate the individuals involved, leading to high turnover, low morale, and a subversive culture.  Constant battles between team members and leadership, blame-based cultures, and a lack of trust are a far more likely outcome of a focus on compliance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some leaders provide their organizations with minimal specific direction. Each individual or team is given the freedom to pursue the mission of the organization within basic financial or resource constraints.

This sounds like the ideal situation, in which individuals are free to pursue the mission of the organization in a way that reflects their own personality, values, and beliefs.  Unfortunately, there are usually still significant differences in how individuals approach their work that prevents this ideal from being achieved.

The Flavor-of-the-Month

One of the most common ways that this becomes evident is in the flavor-of-the-month trend.  This is the situation in which new initiatives, projects, or approaches are rolled out to the organization so often that they never gain traction.  Eventually, team members adopt the mental attitude of “this too shall pass.”  If they just wait long enough the effort will be abandoned and they can move on to the next thing. This allows them to justify minimal effort which then guarantees that the initiative will fail and be abandoned.

So how does this trend start?

In organizations large enough to have a significant middle management layer, turnover can be a key culprit. Each time a new manager joins a team, they have a desire to put their mark on the group.  Many times, this will involve starting a new initiative or program. If managers are turned over at a significant rate, then these programs are not given enough time to fully take root before the next manager is ready to change things again.

A similar situation can occur without any changes in personnel. Many times, leaders are not patient enough for the necessary cultural changes to take place for initiatives to succeed. If leaders are not fully dedicated to the long-term success of their efforts, their impatience will get the best of them and result in too frequent changes of direction.

Is Your Team Balanced?

So, if these two extreme approaches (too much emphasis on compliance or too much freedom) do not result in long-term success, what approach should be used?

The trick is to provide just the right balance of guidance and freedom to allow teams to consistently work together towards common goals without feeling overly constrained by a compliance-based culture. Clearly defining an organizational philosophy is a good first step to remove some of the variation introduced by individual diffences. From there, constant effort is necessary to evaluate the organizational culture and performance to ensure the philosophy is being followed and is effective.

In future posts we will continue to explore the impact of philosophy on organizational culture and performance as well as what practical steps you can take to define and follow your own organizational philosophy.  For now, here are a few questions you can ponder regarding your current organizational philosophy:

  • Does your organization have a clearly defined mission/vision?
  • Do you have a clearly defined approach for pursuing that mission?
  • Where is your organization on the compliance/freedom spectrum?
  • Do your teams lose effectiveness due to disagreements about how to approach problems?
  • Would your organizational culture benefit from more explicitly defining your philosophy?



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