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Culture is Like a Song

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When defining organizational culture, I have picked up on the definition used by Bossidy and Charan in their book, “Execution” (2009) that it is defined by the behaviors that leaders exhibit and tolerate (and encourage, I would add). They assert that,

…to change the culture of the company, it must be done by changing the behaviors of its leaders” (Bossidy and Charan 2009, p. 105).

I am drawn to this definition because it is behavioral, and, therefore, can be observed, measured, developed and changed. This may feel somewhat “cold” to many of you who envision culture to be something more ethereal.  I offer this alternate definition as an example:

The values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization. Organizational culture includes an organization’s expectationsexperiences, philosophy, and values that hold it together, and is expressed in its self-image, inner workings, interactions with the outside world, and future expectations. It is based on shared attitudesbeliefscustoms, and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and are considered valid.  (http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/organizational-culture.html#ixzz432BtClQ8)

I am sometimes critical of definitions like this because a) they make the construct/concept sound much too complicated for our end users (clients, organizations) and b) it is probably impossible to reliably measure despite the desperate attempt at the very end to assert they must be valid (or at least “considered” valid. Really?)

I was recently sharing my definition of culture in a talk I gave at SPIM (https://goo.gl/jk7LrJ), and it occurred to me that the pure behaviorist definition does seem cold.  I told them (and now you) that I really don’t believe that culture is just a bunch of behaviors any more than three notes are just a “chord” in music. So I got to thinking about this musical metaphor.

I am not anywhere near a musical expert nor prodigy. But I do love music of all kinds, play a couple instruments, and have performed in many groups, from folk groups, rock bands, orchestras, marching bands. and church choirs. Have even tried to write a few ditties along the way.  So I do appreciate the magic of music done well and the challenge of creating that magic.

Most of you are younger than me, but some of the “old” music is still pretty accessible. With the use of the song “America” in the Sanders campaign, you had the chance to get introduced (or re-familiarized) with the duet harmony of Simon and Garfunkel, and that is one kind of magic augmented by a message that strikes home on many levels that can give you goose bumps.

But adding a third note is a different kind of experience.  It’s kind of like the difference between two points creating a line in two dimensions, and then adding that third point that creates a plane. It is that concept that we also use in defining psychological constructs, and (at least from my recollection of factor analysis) part of the reason that, in 360 data collection and reporting, we try to have three items in a dimension and three responses to report a score.

Back to music, the recent death of George Martin has created an excuse to revisit the catalog of The Beatles songs that he produced and even performed on. In fact, just yesterday the New York Times created a list of almost their entire library in which you can listen to snippets or listen to the full song on Spotify with just a click. http://nyti.ms/1M5zq3J

I encourage you to use that easy NYTimes means to refresh (or create) a memory of the magic that they could create with the three part harmonies on songs like “This Boy,” “Nowhere Man,” and “I Feel Fine.”  “Because” from “Abbey Road” is also amazing, but with an asterisk since it might be called “synthetic” harmony in 9 parts, obviously using technology to create the multiple layers of voices.

For those of you who know more about music than I do, I have heard of references to “phantom” (or hidden) notes that are not sung but are heard when harmonies are just right.  I keep using the word “magic” but I can’t think of a better way of describing the sense you get when the sound is so rich, and then even sometimes combined with a moving lyric.  I am not the most spiritual person in the world, but some of my most vivid, chill-producing experiences have been when singing in a church choir when the music, the message, and the performance all come together, maybe for even just a phrase or even one bar. I think most of us have used the metaphor of “singing out of the same hymnal” regardless of our denomination (or lack thereof) and know basically what we are referring to when we use it.

The Beatles (and George Martin, sometimes called the “Fifth Beatle”) were an organization. I think their culture was best demonstrated when they sang in three parts (occasionally Ringo joined), and they did less of that on “Sgt. Pepper’s”, and then it basically went away until their last album, “Abbey Road.” (“Let It Be” was recorded before Abbey Road and had no three-part harmony that I can cite).  I propose that they lost their “culture” in a corresponding timeframe, and got it back to an extent in time to produce their arguably best (and last) album.

So this behaviorist does see/hear/feel the magic that can be created by three or more leaders in an organization that are “singing” the same tune that is derived from a common commitment to the organization’s vision, values and strategy, translated into concrete behavioral requirements that are definable, measurable, and developable. We sometimes refer to that as the whole being more than the sum of the parts; the sentiment is the same but that phrase doesn’t create chills, at least for me.

Can a behaviorist see and hear magic, and get chills? This one can.

 

Bossidy, L. and Charan, R. (2009). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York: Crown Business.

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Written by David Bracken

March 16, 2016 at 11:08 pm

Can you change a culture?

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Us folks at OrgVitality have a view of the “vital” organization that includes concepts of ambidexterity, agility and resilience. These concepts can be operationalized to promote the creation of a culture that makes those characteristics a way of life in the organization.

I found a recent article (Lengnick-Hall, Beck and Lengnick-Hall, 2010) titled, “Developing a capacity for organizational resilience through strategic human resource management.”  Their message of creating and sustaining a culture through human resource processes is a powerful concept.

These authors define resilience as:

“…a firm’s ability to effectively absorb, develop situation-specific responses to, and ultimately engage in transformative activities to capitalize on disruptive surprises that potentially threaten organization survival.”  They go on to propose that resilience should be created through individual knowledge, skills, and abilities and organizational routines and processes.

This is good stuff but I think they have missed an opportunity to talk about creating a culture through behavior change. Culture has a lot of definitions, but a couple are consistent with this view of behavior being a key factor. I have been drawn to an observable and measurable definition of culture offered by Bossidy and Charan (2002) in their seminal book, Execution: The discipline of getting things done,:

The culture of a company is the behavior of its leaders. Leaders get the behavior they exhibit and tolerate.”

While many traditionalists will argue with such a “superficial” treatment of culture, it was foreshadowed by Kotter and Heskett (1992) who refined their definition of culture with this statement: “…culture represents the behavior patterns or style of an organization that new employees are automatically encouraged to follow by their fellow employees.” (p. 4)

This definition is too limiting in not directly acknowledging that the “fellow employees” who have the most impact on creating the culture are the leaders of that organization.

Let’s return to the resilience article. I looked for statements of behaviors that might be useful for creating a culture of resilience, particularly defined in terms of leader behavior that could easily be fodder for a 360 or upward feedback process. Fortunately for me, there is a section called, “Behavioral elements of organizational resilience.” Their language is somewhat academic (e.g., “nonconforming strategic repertoires”), but here are some examples of behaviors that I propose support their conceptualization of resilience:

  • Encourages new solutions to problems
  • Finds new strategies that are different from the past and industry norms
  • Takes the initiative and moves quickly to overcome challenges
  • Ensures that new and creative solutions are consistent with organizational goals and values
  • Challenges the status quo
  • Encourages the discarding of obsolete information and practices
  • Recognizes and rewards behaviors that demonstrate flexibility and resourcefulness

They list a whole raft of HR policies, principles and practices that can support the development of resilience, including things like after-action reviews, open architecture, broad job descriptions, employee suggestions, and cross-departmental task forces. They reference a need to include performance reviews (“results-based appraisals) that encourage the right activities.

But nowhere is 360 feedback mentioned as a potentially powerful tool to reinforce and create culture change. Here are a few ways that 360 processes can be integral parts of a culture change initiative:

  • Defines the construct (e.g., resilience) in behavioral terms
  • Communicates the construct as an organizational priority (i.e., is being measured)
  • Potentially communicates to all employees (raters, ratees) on a repeated basis
  • Creates a metric for tracking progress over time
  • Creates a metric for identifying individual, team, and organizational gaps in performance
  • Creates accountability for behavior consistent with organizational needs
  • Supports aligned HR practices when integrated with other HR systems (e.g., development, staffing, succession planning, performance reviews, high potential development)

This list makes some assumptions about the design and implementation of 360 processes that support culture change. That is such a large topic that it would require an entire book. Stay tuned for that.

I am amazed and disappointed that a major treatise on what is in effect culture change would not include 360 feedback as at least worth consideration as a supporting HR practice. It makes me wonder why that is.

References

Bossidy, L, and Charan, R. (2002). Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. New York: Crown Business.

Kotter, J.P., and Heskett, J.L. (1992). Corporate Culture and Performance. New York: Free Press.

Lengnick-Hall, C.A., et al. (2010). Developing a capacity for organizational resilience through strategic human resource management. Human Resource Management Review, doi:10.1016/j.hrmr.2010.07.001.

©2011 David W. Bracken

What is normal?

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My good friend, Jon Low (http://thelowdownblog.blogspot.com/), brought a WSJ article to my attention that delves into the question of what behaviors are “normal” (i.e., tolerated or even encouraged) across different organizations, in this case sorted by industry.  Here are a couple brief excerpts from the article and a link to access it:

Fuld & Co., a competitive-intelligence consultant based in Cambridge, Mass., presented 104 business executives with hypothetical scenarios that would give the executive an opportunity to collect intel about a competitor, but straddled the ethical line. Participants could rate the scenario as “normal,” “aggressive,” “unethical,” or “illegal.”

“Companies have different senses of what’s right and wrong,” said Fuld & Co. President Leonard Fuld.

Executives in financial services and technology are the most cutthroat in collecting intelligence about competitors, while pharmaceutical executives and government officials are the most trepid, according to a recent survey.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704728004576176711042012064.html?KEYWORDS=joe+light

What came to my mind in reading this interesting study was the question of the utility of comparing leadership behavior across organizations as we use the results of 360 Feedback processes to guide the development priorities and, sometimes, make other decisions based on the data as well.  Specifically, how useful are external norms as part of 360 reports?

First a brief digression. I have proposed lately that many discussions of best practices in the 360 arena should be divided into two categories, i.e., processes where “N=1” (i.e., ad hoc, single person administrations) vs. “N>1” (i.e., where more than one leader is going through the 360 experience at the same time).  For “N=1” situations, using an off-the-shelf instrument usually makes sense, and usually those instruments have external norms since the content is held constant across all users. Usually there are no internal norms as well. That said, the points I make below highlight the need for caution in using external norms in any setting. End of digression.

I frequently use a quote taken from the book Execution (Bossidy and Charan, 2003) that reads:

The culture of a company is the behavior of its leaders. Leaders get the behavior they exhibit and tolerate.”

I do not recall ever hearing anyone refute the notion that every organization has its own culture. Since that is an accepted axiom, then it would follow from Bossidy and Charan that the definition of successful leadership behaviors should vary across organizations as well.

If you agree with that train of thought, then it seems to follow that using external norms in 360’s makes no sense. For starters, wanting external norms severely constrains the content of the instrument since the organization will be required to use the exact wording and response scale from the standard questionnaire.

Using external norms also flies in the face of the argument that the uniqueness of an organization (and its culture) is a source of competitive advantage.  I (and others) also argue that uniquely relevant 360 content greatly helps in creating motivation for the raters and for helping ratees accept the feedback as being important and relevant to their success.

360’s can be a powerful way to create culture change. Especially when used across the whole organization, the behavioral descriptors “bring the culture to life” and communicate to all employees what it takes to be a successful member of organization and what they should expect from their leaders. Administration across the organization will quickly generate internal norms that can be an extremely powerful tool in helping leaders understand how they compare to their peers, and, in some organizations, help identify outliers at the low end who may require special attention. Conversely, leaders at the top 5th percentile may be used as role models.

Returning to the study cited in the WSJ, I might have thought that ethical behavior might be one area where there would be some consistency across organizations, at least within the same culture (e.g., Western culture). Silly me. If we have significant variance in behavioral expectations across organizations and/or industries in something as basic as ethical behavior, then we similarly should not be surprised if we find differences in other categories of behavior as well.

Do you believe that each organization has a unique culture? If so, using external norms in your 360 probably doesn’t make sense.

©2011 David W. Bracken

Where Are You Going with Your 360?

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What’s the old saying, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”?  A few of my blogs have proposed that 360 processes should have an explicit statement of their purpose/goal and that the multitude of decisions in design and implementation should be guided by that statement .

So what should (or can) be the goal of a 360 process? What is the “end game,” i.e., the desired outcome?  And how will you know if you get there? There are undoubtedly multiple valid answers to those questions.

In April, Carol Jenkins and I will be leading a SIOP Workshop on 360 and we would like to discuss this question of the purpose and goals of 360 processes. One reason is that if we have different mental models of what we are trying to achieve, then we will certainly disagree on the “best” approaches to implementing a 360 process.

As a behaviorist, my bias has been to define the goal of a 360 process in behavioral terms. To support that position, I have referred to quotes from the book “Execution” by Bossidy and Charan (2003), that state: “The culture of a company is the behavior of its leaders. Leaders get the behavior they exhibit and tolerate.” And “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of acting, we act ourselves into a new way of thinking.”

Given that perspective, we (“360 From Another Angle,” Bracken, Timmreck, Fleenor, and Summers, 2001) proposed this definition of the goal of a “valid” 360 process:

“(To create) sustained, observed improvement in behaviors valued by the organization.

When we say “observed,” the direct implication is that they are measurable (by the 360 process). With that definition, we should be able to determine whether it is being achieved and maintained over time.

So what is your definition of purpose (goals) for your 360 process, or for 360 processes in general? If you don’t agree with the one I have offered, tell us why and offer an alternative. Your goal statement should begin with “To…” and ideally be a SMART goal (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time bounded). (Mine doesn’t meet all those criteria, and your criteria may be a little different, but hopefully you get the idea.) For example, “To promote leadership development” wouldn’t cut it.

I hope you will jump in and help us!  If we get some responses to this, it should be good fodder for future blogs and for our SIOP Workshop!!

©2010 David W. Bracken