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Organizational Gravity: Three Steps to Foster Continuous Improvement, Defy Obsolescence and Take Flight

Gravity can be a wonderful thing. It is an irresistible force that keeps  us grounded on this big, beautiful, floating blue marble. It is even  applicable to organizations in the form of organizational gravity. For  example, I worked with an organization that coined a catch phrase for a  challenge beyond its scope of control, deeming the situation a “gravity  issue.” They explained that “the situation is out of our control, much  like gravity – you can’t do anything about it.”

Sadly, this mentality represents the culture in many organizations.  Whether it’s the culture, the hierarchy, the bureaucracy or the  processes, organizational gravity seems to grow ever stronger as an  organization matures.  Sure, organizational gravity keeps the  organization grounded and focused.  It may also contribute to a passion  for continuous improvement at a very tactical, discreet level.  But, it  also narrows that focus at the expense of innovation and adaptability,  two of the most critical abilities of successful organizations. So how  do we defy organizational gravity?

Continuous Improvement Planning

Every company or organization begins as a plan. Never forget that!   Continuous improvement planning is the key to defying organizational  gravity. It’s easy to think of everything we do in our working lives as  “processes.”  For instance, your organization probably has a hiring  process. However, this is the wrong way to look at it. Instead of  viewing it as a hiring process, think of it as a hiring “framework.”  Of  course you plan for each and every position that you must fill, as  every new hire has different strengths and weaknesses. However, many  organizations still call this a “process,” which evokes the image of a  manufacturing line.

What about a new project?  Any continuous improvement planning in that?   Sure there is.  Large scale projects are unique, even if there are a  number of processes involved, because in a sense, these projects have  never been performed before.  If you are an entrepreneur pursuing a new  business idea, you begin with a plan. That plan may be a formal business  plan or it may just be an idea sketched out on the back of an envelope.  Ultimately, with success, those plans transform into processes, the  sustaining framework of the business — and that is where organizational  gravity begins to tighten its grip.  As our ideas coalesce into plans  and the plans further coalesce into concrete processes, organizational  gravity strengthens and holds the organization together.

It is this necessary and proper transformation from plan to process  that, for good and ill, perpetuates the relentless assault of  organizational gravity. As a positive force, we might call it focus.   However, the cons of organizational gravity include stagnation and  paralyzing bureaucracy. How do we balance the need to “break the surly  bonds of earth” to adapt and innovate in a constantly changing  environment with the grounded focus of organizational gravity?

Three Tasks to Defy Organizational Gravity

Freeing ourselves from the constraints of organizational gravity while  anchoring ourselves safely in the terra firma of our proven processes  takes a constant commitment to accomplish three tasks: Always state a  clear objective, always align every objective to your purpose, and  always plan over the process.

Have a Clear Objective

The objective is everything!  I often observe individuals and teams  charging forward to execute a task or project without a clear objective  in mind. They get caught up in doing without thinking, and if you stop  these individuals to ask what the main objective is, they would have a  very difficult time articulating what it is they are attempting to  achieve. However, if you ask them to think clearly about their  objective, they often realize that their approach is flawed or even  wrong.

Always have a defined objective for even the most routine tasks.  This  will help you think freshly in terms of the continuous improvement  process. Consider how you will achieve the objective and question  whether a given process or approach is really sufficient, effective, or  relevant.

The Big Picture Objective: Differentiate the “Why” from “What”

Align to the big picture objective — the big picture objective refers  to your purpose, mission, strategy and long-range goals.  Simon Sinek,  author of “Start with Why,” makes this compelling point:  Aligning to  the big picture purpose, or as Sinek puts it, the “why you do it,” is  what separates Apple from companies that make computers.  Making  something or providing a service is just the “what,” and the “what” may  change as the environment or market changes.  However, the “why” never  changes.  The “why” helps us look beyond our terrestrial existence and  the organizational gravity, helping you to re-align to the fundamental  reasons why we and our organizations get up every morning.  When you  constantly remind yourself of the “why” and align your actions to the  big picture, you simultaneously free yourself from constraints of  process-thinking while grounding yourself in the fundamentals of the  organization.

Plan Over the Process

Third, always plan over the process. The Blue Angels, the U.S.  Navy’s world famous flight demonstration squadron, fly the same show on  every performance, but the location changes.  Do you think that the Blue  Angels fly a process?  No, they fly a continuous improvement plan that  they adapt to every different location, situation and changing weather  condition.  Unless you are manufacturing the same widget day in and day  out, you need to plan over the process. And I guarantee that you won’t  manufacture that widget the same way for too many years. Change always  happens — like organizational gravity, it’s relentless.

One can plan over the process by taking the standard process, clarifying  the present objective, aligning that objective to the big picture  objectives and fundamental “why” of the organization, and then asking a  few questions.  First, ask what stands in your way – what threatens the  successful accomplishment of your objective?  Second, ask what resources  are needed to accomplish this objective. Existing processes fool us  into making assumptions about threats and resources – that they remain  the same day-in and day-out.  Never assume that a process may be  followed blindly without considering what may have changed in the  current context.  Instead, plan over the process – never assume a  process is sufficient in every given scenario.  Always perform fresh  continuous improvement planning by considering new threats and resources  and then develop a new course of action appropriate to the present  context.

Balancing the benefits and limiting tendencies of organizational gravity  comes down to maintaining a clarity of purpose, approaching every task,  every project, and every day as an opportunity to conduct continuous  improvement planning.

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