On Perpetual Organizational Progress

Emergence as a recognized entity secures a tentative place for an organization in a population, but its persistence depends upon the continual replication of its routines and competencies (Aldrich & Ruef, 2006, p. 94).  We think of where we work as somewhere fixed; an institution in its truest sense, a building with cubicles, desks with computers, and employees with bosses.  Yet what the research has shown is this is only the case because we collectively make it so each day, and the day we cease to do so is the day our organization equally ceases to persist.  From this outlook, though, comes an equally ambitious upside… we then have a choice on the organizational routines and competencies we elect to replicate and utilize.  Said differently, we can begin to rethink, regroup, redirect, and retool at any time as the organization is not in a fixed state.  So what’s stopping us?  Transformational change involves a radical shift from one state of being to another, which is an extremely painful process… proactive transformation requires an awareness of the consequences the “new” context will have on the existing culture, behaviors, and mindset, if it is to be engaged in willingly (Biscaccianti, Esposito, & Williams, 2011, p. 30).

We as individual members of an organization function as both user and supporter of the organization continually and paradoxically.  We are project managers, financial analysts, account executives, and customer service representatives.  We are defined by our role, by our processes, by the systems we use, the skills we have, and the declarative & procedural knowledge we employ.  We do not change because we choose not to change, and we choose not to change because we took far too long learning and working and struggling to get where we are with what we know.  Is this an accurate look on reality, though?  To seek perpetual organizational progress is to seek a framework and mindset of near-daily renewal of our routines and competencies for the sake of our company’s progress, not for change’s sake alone, nor at the expense of individual accomplishment.  The organization at its essence is an aggregation of human effort, not of best practices, industry standards, and heralded products and services.  Put another way, individuals can be wildly successful and equally accomplished, while the organizations they work for is under a constant state of flux and renewal.  One can use and support an organization differently each day, while being regarded the expert of his/her craft.  Thus, in order to pursue perpetual organizational progress, a new lens with which to view change is necessary.

The essence of the problem-finding and problem-solving approach revolves around the identification of problem characteristics and the extent to which they entail corresponding impediments to the activities of problem finding, framing, and formulating; problem solving; and solution implementation…  methodologically, this approach responds to design science’s call to comparatively evaluate alternative governing mechanisms that mitigate impediments, leading to more comprehensive problem formulations, more efficient searching for and creating of valuable solutions, and more successful implementation of solutions (2012, p. 58).  This approach to organizational design allows us to ask far broader questions of management, and of every member’s contribution to ongoing organizational success.  Success herein and thus far has not been defined, and this definition remains absent as the definition must instead remain iterative.  We should not seek success in traditional terms as traditional terms warrant traditional practices, and those practices warrant the knowledge we already have and the processes we already use.  Perpetual progress then means a perpetual identification of new problems, new obstacles, new impediments, new solutions, and a new definition of success with each march forward.

Is there a magic recipe all companies should follow for identifying the problems we must then address in perpetuity?  With persistence as the goal the answer then remains, not likely.  What can be done, however, is we can instead codify the process for identifying problems at the individual organizational level, as those same routines and competencies which brought us to today can then serve as filters for identifying further opportunities for progress.  Cognitive heuristics – problem-solving techniques that reduce complex situations to simpler judgmental operations – can become specific to an organizational form, or even an individual organization (Aldrich & Ruef, 2006, p. 120).  The very fabric which defines how our organizations are successful now then becomes not what we choose to change, yet instead what we use to evaluate what else should change.  Success today sets not tomorrow’s bar, it identifies today’s neighboring problem.  All else may change to exist on-par with that new success.

Today’s performance management systems seek to evaluate how well individual members are faring at performing pre-determined routines.  Individual performance measurement is accepted as a retrospective task seeking convergent methods of routine persistence and level of competence.  We set new goals, yet of the same routines.  We establish new targets, yet of only marginally enlarged job descriptions.  Skeptical?  Ask yourself when you were last given a revised job description based on what you’ve learned during your year(s) of service and growth.  Better still, ask yourself when you directly contributed toward the authorship of such a document.  Rational system theorists stress goal specificity and formalization, natural system theorists generally acknowledge the existence of these attributes but argue that other characteristics – characteristics shared with all social groups – are of greater significance, and open systems are [instead] capable of self-maintenance on the basis of throughput of resources from the environment, [and] this throughput is essential to the system’s viability (Scott, 2003).  Social systems warranting the identification of work performed indeed, and based on the resources provided by the surrounding environment.  This then obviates the idea that performance management should be based on a fixed target, much as organizational progress is only perpetual when fixed routines and competencies have been abandoned.

To seek resolution, then, of the competing challenges between management’s historical predisposition toward a rational system, and its desire to emulate open systems thinking, we seek not a replacement for today’s routines or tomorrow’s stretch goals.  We seek instead, an entirely different unit of analysis, and object of our futurist affection.  What we should be promoting instead of leadership alone are communities of actors who get on with things naturally, leadership together with management being an intrinsic part of that (Mintzberg, 2009, p. 9).  We seek the ability to fluidly move between the routines which bring us present success, the pursuit of impediments to success elsewhere, and the ability to base our progress on an iterative view of success itself and our progress toward it, thereby managing performance on numerous planes simultaneously.  Those planes then include perhaps a normative look at performance via the evaluations we all know and review periodically, the plane of success impediments identified, the working definition of success holistically, and the actions/strategies necessary to balance them all.  And is there a process for identifying these actions/strategies?  Indeed there is.  Positive deviance (PD) is founded on the premise that at least one person in a community, working with the same resources as everyone else, has already licked the problem that confounds others… from the PD perspective, individual difference is regarded as a community resource… community engagement is essential to discovering noteworthy variants in their midst and adapting their practices and strategies (Pascale, Sternin, & Sternin, 2010, p. 3).  We can embrace the bestseller lists without reservation and engage in either frequency imitation, trait imitation, outcome imitation, or a combination of the three.  Conversely, we can seek these deviants, and not for their solutions, but for their methodology at removing impediment in the name of a new successful day, every day.

– Justin

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