How to Get Rid of Wasted Effort, Scope Creep, and Lukewarm Productivity in 2012

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

How to Get Rid of Wasted Effort, Scope Creep, and Lukewarm Productivity in 2012

My prediction for the new year: Your organization will initiate many major changes with considerable hope and fanfare. But, by the end of the year, most will have failed, gone way over time and budget, or only given you some low hanging fruit. Statistics show us that year after year only about 30 percent of changes in organizations are successful.

There is one thing you could do that just might increase your success rate tremendously.  (I know you may be thinking that I am going to suggest an expensive consulting intervention or complex technical solution, but my suggestion is actually quite simple.)

Set a single compelling goal. That’s it.

First, allow me to tell you a story about some stunning positive changes occurring in inner-cities.

In Don’t Shoot, researcher David Kennedy wondered why our approaches to dealing with gang violence were so ineffective. With some 25 years of research on the streets, he found that our assumptions about gang members and violence were wrong. Consequently, our approaches to improving conditions didn’t work. He found that the criminal justice system couldn’t just take a “massive one-size-fits-all” approach to problems. The strategy had to be highly focused.

“It was narrow – don’t shoot. The normal frame said, ‘Don’t be in gangs, don’t commit crimes, don’t sell drugs, don’t carry weapons, don’t violate your probation, don’t drink and drug. Turn your life around’. . . . This cut to the chase: Don’t hurt people. Say any more – don’t carry guns, don’t sell drugs, don’t recruit kids into your gang – you couldn’t back it up. There was just too much of it, and too little of us.” (Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America (David Kennedy. Bloomsbury USA. 2011)

Here’s what they did. Most of the offenders were either on parole or probation, so they had to come to meetings when asked. Leaders picked a gang leader. When he walked in (and it was almost always a he), the gang leader saw his family, church leaders, and neighbors. These people told him that they needed him – his family and his community needed him. The authorities said that they would put away their file on him provided that he and his gang didn’t kill anyone. If there was even a single fatal shooting, police and the justice system would come down hard and most likely send him and others away for a long time.

Kennedy said that the programs that worked used “focused deterrence” – focus on one problem and on the group of core offenders.  (The statistics suggest that this highly focused approach which includes law enforcement, family, community leaders and key offenders approach is amazingly effective.)  Some cities have seen violence decrease by as much as sixty-six percent.

I think the implications from Don’t Shoot could be profound for our work in organizations as well. Here are the connections that jump off the page at me. I imagine that you can think of others.

Effective programs focus on a single thing. Too many organizational changes bundle all manner of grandiose goals. This may sound good and touch on all the issues that various groups think are important, but these goals lack focus. It’s hard, maybe even impossible, to set priorities and develop plans when everything is considered a top priority.

In dealing with gang violence, the focus was don’t shoot. If you do, the world will come crashing down around you. Instead of trying to tackle everything that needed to be corrected, they chose one big thing. And, they found that by reducing shootings, it made communities safer and other problems began to dissipate.

Often when people tried to reduce violence in their cities, they assumed that they needed to fix all of the things that they believed created it: racism, residents’ dislike of police, no jobs, crumbling schools, and so forth. When gang members (and others in the community) realized that law enforcement and social programs couldn’t possibly deliver, they continued business as usual.  And others in the community felt they had been lied to about the grand promises of a better community. Don’t shoot tells you what is expected in just two words. Don’t shoot tells everyone that this is where we are going to focus our attention.

Pick one thing to focus on that everyone can see is important. And that everyone can easily see if you are making progress. As Jack Stack says in The Great Game of Business, you need to identify the critical number. When Stack and a couple of business partners bought Springfield ReManufacturing, the debt to equity ratio was 89:1. They knew that paying interest on that massive debt every month was their critical number. If they didn’t meet it, the banks could take their company away from them.

Too often, our scorecards are filled with too much data and this dilutes the message. That’s why “Don’t Shoot” and Stack’s bring in $X to pay the interest this month are so clear and compelling.

The people with a stake in the outcome are engaged.  There’s lots of good research about the importance of engagement in the workplace. And yet, too many changes fail to involve people in planning or leading portions of the change. (By the way, a question and answer period at the end of a mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation is not engagement.) Efforts for better change find ways to ensure that people are invited to roll up their sleeves and make the changes successful.

Kennedy describes how all affected parties (police, the courts, social workers, educators, churches and the gang leaders) were working together to reduce violence. Jack Stack writes that everyone at Springfield ReManufacturing knew the critical number and knew how their work contributed to servicing the debt.

Combine Reality, Hope, Support, and a Simple Plan

While the clear and simple goal is important, it rests within the context of reality and support.

Reality. Effective changes must address the status quo. People need to feel the need for change in their bones. That can be painful, sobering, or embarrassing, but it is essential. People need to face reality. In the Don’t Shoot approach, people in those communities desperately wanted the violence to end, and they realized that the usual way of trying to fix the problem didn’t work. And gang leaders needed to see why their behavior had to change. At Springfield ReManufacturing everyone was expected to act like an owner in finding ways to meet the critical number every month. (Once the company paid off its debt, the critical number changed. But, they always had a critical number.)

Hope. Reality without hope leads to depression. Hope comes from an inspiring goal that people believe can be attained. Focusing on reduction in violence seemed difficult but possible.

Support. People in organizations need all types of support (e.g. money, time, access to other key players) and they need to feel like people are rooting for them or maybe even have their backs. By asking family, clergy, and community leaders to speak about what they need from the gang leader is saying in effect, “We believe in you. We believe you are a leader. We want you to succeed so that our community can succeed.” That’s the makings of a lot of support.  When the owners of a small company said, “we want you to act like owners,” they were demonstrating their belief in the people who worked with them.

As you start planning  for the new year, I hope that you’ll consider the simplicity and wisdom of Don’t Shoot. I wish you well. (And, as always, I welcome your comments.)




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