For years my management peers and I have been struggling with getting people to follow processes or update processes to reflect current practices. As we’ve grown, new people from different generations have come and gone with relatively few of us who on-boarded before we grew significantly back in the early 2000’s. Small errors in design, program management and operations have been creeping in creating a rolling wave of fire fighting. In our annual training, we stress the importance of paying attention to the myriad details required to create the components and spacecraft that travel throughout the solar system. This preaching has served us in the last 15 years but is no longer sufficient to mature our organization. Middle management has had countless discussions about culture, accountability and integrating the ideas of multiple generations. We’re not the only company struggling with type of phenomenon as there are all kinds of business articles about culture and management styles needed to address the different generations currently in our workforce or the adaptive cycle between rigidity trap, breakthrough, growth and re-organization.
Culture is an emergent phenomenon arising from the individual actions of the people involved in a business, organization or society. Accountability emerges from individuals being responsible, that is doing what they say they do. Leaders can hold people accountable by giving guidance, constraints or ultimatums. As employees at any level, to be accountable we have to first be responsible for our actions and more importantly our interactions with the business system or organization we integrate with. Simply showing up on time to a meeting is an act of responsibility and respect. Within the space sector of the aerospace industry, personnel often take great pride in what they work on. Sending stuff to other planets or supporting the International Space Station not only lends itself to as sense of pride but the derivation of meaning from our daily toils, fire fighting and struggles at the workplace. The thing is the pride and self aggrandizement gets in the way of process maturity by undermining our process effectiveness. People do what they think is right instead of doing what is written down. Personnel come from different companies and bring along with them and idea of how they think things need to get done even if antithetical to what’s already established. Process creep grows like an archetypal monster. It’s like personnel want to do away with the old and replace it with the new. It’s an age old story that’s not just in business.
All of us were kids at one point. We all had our thoughts about how we are right and our parents are wrong. Being a parent allows us to see the throwing off of the old so that the new can take hold. It’s a recursive phenomenon extending back through the ages. For the most part, we as adults don’t get past some of our basic behaviors found in childhood. If we are lucky, we may learn patience and some reward deferral along the way. We think we grow up, but the fact is, we are often emotional adolescents running around in adult bodies attempting to act in adult ways. Don’t get me wrong, being a little childish can be great fun and even bring light-hearted ness to our daily interactions. However, we all can get stuck in our self-centering, aggrandizement, and pain avoidant mechanisms. Self preservation and pain avoidance and thinking only of ourselves is natural and programmed into our wetware. Take for instance my seven year old son. When he’s focused on some toy or problem, he’ll tell me or mom to let him do it. Even though we see how a simple change in his behavior or action will cut his struggle in half. He simply needs to figure it out himself no matter what the cost. Or, rather, he doesn’t understand the cost of his time and energy. He is focused on proving he can do things. He wants to show us he’s capable. With that said, he’s struggling with reading tests at school. Is it because of his reading skills? My wife and I don’t think so. His teacher and in-school tutor don’t think so. When he wants to read a particular book, he does an amazing job sounding out words that are not so easy for his grade level. Same thing with any of his homework. When he wants to do it, he does. If not, it’s a struggle to say the least. His focus is amazing when he has interest in what he’s doing. Like many kids his age, he is easily distracted. Once he gets into an activity, he starts to realize how much energy it’s going to take and his attention wanders to the next shiny thing, or what I call S.O.S. Shiny Object Syndrome. Sometimes, this seems like laziness, but I think it’s more simple.
My son fights the guidance and boundaries we give him. He doesn’t like doing things he doesn’t like to do. Imagine that. Finding the right incentive to motivate his behavior is tricky due to his distract-ability. So, we attempt to provide boundaries and even punishment for unacceptable behaviors. This is where it gets interesting and relates to process and personnel maturity. A recent response he has to guidance, boundaries and punishment is the statement, “I’m stupid.” This infuriates me as I know he’s not. I base my judgement on the results of his states of focus, like completing a lego radio controlled vehicle intended for 9-14 year olds in less than two hours. My judgement is also backed up by his school teachers. I’ve been struggling with how to respond to this. At first I argued stating evidence to the contrary. I tried to ignore it thinking he was trying to get attention. I then told him that being stupid is a great place to start as you know you need to learn. None of these approaches have had a positive effect. At a loss for what to try next, he told his mommy a secret. “I say I’m stupid to get people to treat me nice.” The little shit.
Let’s unpack the situation. First the statement is a lie which is unacceptable. Second, knowing his statements change people’s behavior is manipulative. Third, the statement indicates he is avoiding pain. What pain? It’s hard to hear when we are creating anger, resentment or issues with others. Pain avoidance is inherent in the natural biases wet wired into us through the millennia. We’d rather avoid looking in the mirror to see how we are creating the difficult situations we are in. It’s easier to lie and turn people away from the sore points of our lives, behaviors or just not share any information. Instead of taking responsibility for our part in the problem or situation, we deflect onto others or avoid involving others if we can. We focus on our reputation instead of what’s needed to get something done. How we look with respect to our sister, parent, coworkers or in the eyes of our manager becomes our motive force instead of what’s needed in the situation to be effective. Personal maturity comes when we get over our need for approval and do what’s necessary in a given situation (i.e. integrating with the environment without detriment to self, others and environment). I’ll be working on that until the day I die. Process maturity comes from getting the needed work done effectively without unnecessary loss or inefficiency. The needs of the business, internal customers and external customers are met by doing what we say we do without undo issues or nonconformance (i.e. being both effective and efficient). The needs change over time and thus our processes to remain mature have to evolve as well. Doing what’s comfortable and avoiding pain may be a natural path, but it creates long-term problems. It may be a short-term ease of the pain but the path of least resistance leads to inevitability. Getting the most out of life is not about taking the path of least resistance but doing what’s necessary to gain as much as possible with the time and energy available to spend. Getting the most out of life is a return on the investment we make every day.
Being as effective and efficient with our time and energy while integrating with the existing environment produces amazing results. Asking how to best utilize existing processes enables us to start from where we are at. As we work within our present framework, it’s on us to identify how we or the system we are inherently integrated with may improve. Doing what we say we do is the basis of integrity and long-term profitability personally and collectively. Seeking opportunities to improve in the midst of doing what we say we do matures not only the processes we execute but us as individuals. Integrity is the basis of our existence and is the foundation of increasing our capacity for independent action as individuals or as businesses. So, instead of avoiding looking like we don’t know what we are doing, perhaps we need to get over ourselves and ask some questions. Perhaps we need to embrace being stupid, dull-witted and ignorant so we can open the doors of our perception to more effective and efficient ways of getting shit done. It’s time for us to grow up, accept we don’t know everything, and seek truthful conversations with each other so everyone may get a return on their investment of time and energy at work, at home and in the other spheres of influence circle within.
It’s time we realize growing up never ends.
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