Setting to work before you know WHAT is really at issue is never a wise move
Suppose your organization is experiencing a major problem. You may be grappling with poor employee performance, poor management or perhaps you’re losing good people. Maybe growth is weak or profit has dipped. Since you are unable to resolve the internal problems on your own, you bring in an external party, preferably one with a good reputation. After all, “No one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey”. The consulting firm you’ve hired proceeds to talk to management and employees and offers you a solution. For a while, a consultant or interim manager sets up camp at your company and starts tackling the problem. If he or she fails, you get the blame. If he or she succeeds, you will feel that you have spent your money wisely. The external party then goes on its way, leaving your organization to fend for itself. In most cases, all of the work done by the consultant quickly disappears into the background.
No one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey!
A quick external fix for your internal problems may seem like the best option, but is it really? Before you start working on resolving the internal problems, shouldn’t you first take a good hard look at the cause? In answer to this question, André de Waal, Academic Director of the HPO Center, would have to say a resounding “Yes!”. “The limited time a manager has can best be spent on a method that has been consistently proven to be effective. And that means methods that are validated by scientific research.” De Waal adds, “I for one want a scientific basis for my approach. Exactly what difference will improvements make?” De Waal devoted five years to a scientific and practical study of the success factors of excellent organizations. He examined more than 290 studies into this topic. He then tested the characteristics of High Performance Organizations (HPOs) in 50 countries using surveys conducted at 1,470 organizations. From the results, De Waal identified 35 aspects that contribute to improved performance. These aspects are based on five pillars: an HPO has high quality management and employees, is oriented towards the long term, has an open and action-oriented culture and continuously strives to improve and innovate.
“If organizations really want to improve, they have to demand a great deal of commitment and effort from their management and employees in dealing with the internal problems,” says Esther Mollema, General Director of the HPO Center. “An independent analysis is the best foundation for determining how to spend a scarce budget and time. This prevents a spiral without a sound basis from being set into motion. All too often, consultants are brought in based on the conclusions of a management board regarding alleged foundations or ideas. You cannot simply experiment endlessly, so management needs to be certain that what they are doing is going to help resolve the internal problems. HPO helps them find the right focus.”
What’s stopping you?
De Waal’s concept lies at the heart of activities at the HPO Center, which uses in-depth surveys and interviews to determine what exactly is going on within an organization. Making a diagnosis is the core task of the HPO Center. It provides a focus for the necessary changes and improvements. How this is then approached is left to the organization to decide. De Waal continues, “We don’t offer a cut-and-dried solution or a model. What we do offer is a direction and a framework that managers can use to facilitate change. After the diagnosis, whether disappointing or better than expected, it is up to management to take action.”
Lilian Kolker, Research Director of Healthcare, primarily conducts HPO studies at healthcare organizations and often sees that employees and management have completely different views of the organization, which once again shows that failure to look beyond management when assessing problems has its consequences. The most important question underlying the basis is: what is stopping the organization from becoming an HPO? “Those 35 aspects may seem obvious on the surface, but organizations do not consciously deal with all of those aspects,” explains Kolker, “this allows you to analyze where your strengths and weaknesses lie.” And that means that the results can sometimes come as quite a shock, adds Kolker’s coworker, Mollema. “Obviously, no one wants to hear that, as management, they are providing too little direction or inspiration for their employees. That takes some digesting, which is why we spend a considerable amount of time on clarification. What is most important is to acknowledge and recognize the problem. Only then can something be done about it.”
Hiding behind tools
Once it has been determined what aspects need improvement, the organization can set to work. But how? Every organization has a different diagnosis and therefore a different solution. In other words, there is no one answer to that question. Kolker continues, “No two organizations are alike. If you implement the same tool at two different organizations, it will have a different effect across the board.”
This is why the HPO Center refrains from implementing ready-made tools for tackling problems. In fact, they loathe this type of approach. “It’s too easy for a manager to hide behind tools,” says Mollema. “If you work exactly according to the tool specifications, you do not have to take any responsibility for the results. And, if the manager does not achieve the desired results after using the tool as instructed, it’s not his fault.” In many competence management systems, for example, the tool has become the goal. Mollema continues, “Management then devotes its time and energy to recording information and filling out forms and organizing quarterly meetings. The ultimate goal often fades into the background as a result.” Another tool that often overshoots the goal is the town hall meeting, in which managers ‘mingle’ with their employees once every three months. Mollema adds, “This is nothing more than a tool for improving model behavior. But you shouldn’t only be interacting with your employees once every three months, rather ask yourself each and every day whether you are setting a good example.”
It is important to put your finger on the wound and keep it there. “Managers read huge numbers of management books every year and, whenever something new comes along, we all run after it. But that’s the wrong way to go about it. It is your task as management to make sure everyone in the boat is rowing in the same direction and then tell them: this is what we are going to work towards for the next few years.” says Mollema.
First WHAT, then HOW before you fix your internal problems
Of course, an organization does not necessarily have to be facing major problems to benefit from the HPO Center. Kolker continues, “One of our clients, an engineering firm, is quite successful in its field. Their argument is that, it’s no different than a top athlete who gets a full check-up once a year. This is a great way to assess performance improvement.”
The HPO Center is often asked to assist in follow-up activities, but warns against the dangers of external parties driving the change. The HPO Center coaches, supervises and shares its knowledge of HPO factors, but does not believe that bringing in someone from outside the organization is a guarantee for success. “You then have someone stepping in and doing an intervention,” says Kolker. “But the change needs to come from within. Otherwise, it won’t last. It needs to get embedded in the DNA of the company.” De Waal adds, “A well known psychological effect is that, if you focus on something, you can change it, but its effectiveness depends on the efforts of the organization itself.” To which Mollema adds, “The question that should lie at the heart of every action is, what is stopping us from becoming better? We help find the answer to that question, so that the real work can begin. In other words, ’what’ always comes before ’how’.” De Waal concludes, “We provide an answer to what an organization needs to improve. The challenge for the manager is to incorporate his or her own strength, intuition and style. Everyone has their own way of doing this.”
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