Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 46;   November 14, 2007: Healthy Practices

Healthy Practices

by

Some organizational cultures are healthy; some aren't. How can you tell whether your organizational culture is healthy? Here are some indicators.

Some believe it's possible to assess organizational health by looking at the numbers. They have dozens of "performance indicators," which they track diligently. Perhaps some of these data streams are helpful, but assessing organizational health by analyzing numerical data alone is a risky approach.

The damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, as seen from the command module

The damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, as seen from the command module. The mission was a failure, in the sense that it did not achieve its goals. But the crew returned safely, and a subsequent investigation uncovered the causes of the event. The findings of the investigation did lead to learning, and to an assortment of process changes. Other mishaps in NASA operations have led to other retrospectives of varying degrees of success. The effectiveness of such retrospectives is a measure of — and puts constraints upon — any organization's ability to learn, which, in turn, limits the complexity and novelty of projects the organizations can complete successfully. Photo courtesy US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

For example, I like to visit facilities in mid-afternoon and smell the air in the office and cubicle spaces. If I can't detect the odor of cold pizza, I begin to think that people are taking lunch breaks, spending time together in the cafeteria or at nearby restaurants. They aren't meeting over lunch, or responding to email from their desks, or racing to meet unreasonable deadlines between sandwiches and coffee.

All from the absence of old pizza smell. But it isn't the freshness of the air that's important; it's what the smell tells us about the behavior of the organization's people. Here are some other behaviors that suggest organizational health.

When things go wrong
When a failure happens, those whose actions contributed to the result acknowledge their contributions perhaps with some embarrassment, but definitely without fear. When people suspect that a problem might appear, they surface it immediately, rather than waiting until it's too late, all the while hoping the problem will go away.
When things go right
People share credit for successes. Supervisors credit their subordinates rather than claiming (or accepting) credit for themselves. When a team succeeds, instead of canonizing individuals, we honor the team as a team.
People look forward to retrospectives
We conduct retrospectives (also known as post mortems and after-action reviews). They're real opportunities to learn, rather than painful blamefests. We learn just as much from retrospectives when things go right as we do when things go wrong.
When we're in financial trouble
When a failure happens, those
who contributed to the result
acknowledge their contributions
perhaps with some embarrassment,
but definitely without fear
When we're in the financial soup, we do reduce expenses, but we recognize that cost-cutting tactics aren't enough. We know that growth and investment are the only long-term answers, and we find ways to grow — with new approaches, new products, new services, and new capabilities. In our search, we listen to everyone — customers, ex-customers, consultants, and employees at all levels.
When we disagree
We recognize that our relationships must survive our debates. When we disagree with each other, we do so respectfully, because we acknowledge the possibility that people on any side of the question can be wrong. In fact, people on every side of the question can be wrong. And they can be right, too — you never know.

Most important, we have a commitment to our people. We want them to develop to their full potential. That means monitoring and mentoring; rotating assignments; holding everyone accountable for failures, and rewarding success with more challenging responsibilities. It means not only training, but ongoing education. Learning — and teaching — is part of the job.

Do you work in a place like this? If not, what can you do about it? Go to top Top  Next issue: Difficult Decisions  Next Issue

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