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.