Why do we trust numbers so much?

A lasting legacy of scientific management is a reification of numbers that measure stuff in business.  What we measure, how we measure it, and how we interprete those numbers is extraordinarily subjective, but we continue to hear business leaders sing the praises of using numbers to make “objective”, “fact based”, “unemotional” decisions. When we fail to acknowledge the human subjectivity behind data, we risk investing too much faith in what is at best a historical rendering, creatively constructed to make us feel more secure in making decisions.

Don’t get me wrong – numbers and the measurements we construct with them are great, and they have their place in decision making.  But deciding that the only things that matter are things that can be measured and counted is a short sighted way to run a business.

Do you trust employee surveys?

In the last three months, three major clients have asked me questions about the validity of their employee engagement, satisfaction, and cultural surveys.  They weren’t concerned because the scores were so low. They were worried because the survey results were significantly  higher (read: better) than they would have expected based on their own gut instincts about how things were going.

Employees are getting saavy about how to answer surveys to reduce the amount of noise and churn in their lives. And…. there are some things that are simply best left unquantified. The idea that data is emotionless and factual is sometiems a fiction, a wishful hope, a belief that makes us feel comfortable but doesn’t necessarily reflect organizational experiences.

If your gut is telling you your survey results are a little too rosy, it is worth asking some questions, digging in, and opening up to alternative forms of understanding satsifaction, engagement, and culture.

A mess is not a matrix

When your organizational structure is a mess, it doesn’t make it a matrix. That’s a message I’ve had to give clients over and over again. It is amazing ot me how often people say “well, we have this sort of matrix, where people do a lot of different things.” But a matrix is a highly tuned, well orchestrated structure, with clearly understood responsibilities that span structures and walls.  If your people have well defined obligations to multiple people/structures/goals, and there is routine communication horizontally across your organization, maybe you have a matrix. If you just have a lot of people who feel like they are supposed to somehow figure out how to prioritize and naviagate between multiple (and often conflicting) power structures, you probably don’t have a matrix – you just have a mess. Get it straightened out for the sake of your people.


Decision making is about people making choices….

We need to stop trying to use strategy, scorecards, and process definitions to dictate what decisions people should make, and instead focus on helping people understand how to make decisions when faced with problematic situations.  It is not possible to predict all of decisions a person might have to make in the course of a day, so teaching them how to use your strategy to make aligned decisions is more important than trying to anticipate all of the questions that might come up and committing the ‘right’ answer to a policy, procedure, process, edit, values statement, strategy picture, or any other artifact that gets buried in a knowledge base somewhere and never sees the light of day.

decision making

Want a strategy that works? Get more people involved.

I continue to see clients investing in traditional strategy frameworks – balanced scorecards, strategy maps, 5 forces, etc. These are all good tools for working through how the company can grow and serve its clients. Sadly, the development process continues to be choked down to an elite corps – “a few good men (and maybe some women)” at very senior levels in the organization. This handful of people, by merit of going through the working processes, gains a clear understanding of what it’s all about. When it comes time to announce it (drum roll please…) at best we get some fancy communications, maybe some pretty pictures, but there is no effective way to communicate the experience of creating the strategy. And so it becomes the “flavor of the month/year” and most people simply continue on with their day to day activities, not really caring one way or the other especially after the initial flurry of noise about it. And then clients say “why didn’t it work”?

In today’s work environment it is absolutely possible to engage more people in the process of defining strategy, and not doing so means strategic success continues to be painfully throttled in most organizations. Through the creation process, people learn about how to make different decisions based on the strategic direction. They learn what their colleagues are weighing and considering in their decision making, and through the process, they change their approach to work. It is this change that carries through to embedding the strategy in the culture.

Without this vital step, all the lovely posters and catchphrases and marketing in the world aren’t going to get a strategy to stick.  The problem comes when the change is limited to a very small group of people very high up in the organization.

Even if you can’t break through the concept of strategy as belong to a privileged few, think about ways that help more people to use it in their day to day decision making. Otherwise, it is a lot of time and money spent for just a very few people in the company to get “strategically aligned”.


Required versus wanting too – why should employees come to work?

Yahoo continues to combat the bad press it is receiving since mandating that employees show up at the office.  Under vague references to inspiring people, creating collaboration opportunities and so forth, they seem to miss the point. If you create a compelling, collaborative, and energizing environment, people will show up because not being there feels like a loss.  And they wlil work from home when they need the mind-space to produce, or when they need to balance their work schedules with home / personal requirements, whatever those might be.  But if “the office” physically is attractive enough, they will find ways to show up, instead of marching in under orders.

So the question to Yahoo shouldn’t be why have so many people been working from home, instead it should be why haven’t they been coming to work?  And the answer probably isn’t because they were allowed to, or they weren’t required to…..more likely it is because there wasn’t a rewarding experience for which they felt compelled to show up.