Five Tactics for Building Better Organizational Operating Systems

15 June 2017 | Sutton & Rao, in Scaling up Excellence, provide five tactics for building better organizational operating systems.

1. Subtraction as a Way of Life
Renowned American novelist Ernest Hemingway said the most essential gift for a good writer is “a built-in shock-proof shit detector,” the ability to spot bad or unnecessary text, the skill to fix what is salvageable, and the will to throw away what is beyond repair or unnecessary. Leaders and teams that spread excellence act the same way, ruthlessly spotting and removing crummy or useless rules, tools, and fools that clog up the works and cloud people’s minds.

We don’t advocate unbridled subtraction or a mindless quest for simplicity. As scaling unfolds, it is sometimes necessary to inject a big dose of complexity to get through certain phases—and then cart it away when it is no longer needed.

Complexity and confusion are often unavoidable in the early stages when you aren’t sure what to scale or how to scale it.

2. Make People Squirm
A rule of thumb for practicing subtraction: if you aren’t upsetting people, you aren’t pushing hard enough.

Subtraction often entails removing the old and familiar and replacing it with something new and strange (or nothing at all). Subtraction is jarring because we humans have positive emotional reactions to the familiar and negative reactions to the unfamiliar.

3. Bring on the Load Busters: Subtraction by Addition
The writer Austin O’Malley said, “Memory is a crazy old woman who hoards colored rags and throws away food.”Not only do human beings have lousy memories, but the things that we do recall, ruminate over, and act on are often trivial and useless—“colored rags”that clog our consciousness, sapping our capacity to remember and act on more crucial concerns.

Fortunately, there are ways to short-circuit these failings. Many are simple additions—objects, activities, and technologies—that cut cognitive load, often by turning attention to what matters most and away from what matters least. Some researchers call these affordances; we call them load busters.

The load busters turn attention to what matters most when mental demands are high, priorities clash, and key information is easy to lose or overlook.

4. Divide and Conquer
Breaking organizations into smaller pieces can have striking benefits.

As always, once organizations are divided into roles , teams, levels, departments, locations, and so on, the challenge of coordinating and integrating the work rears its ugly head.

The division of labor always creates demands for integration, especially when multiple teams and departments in different locations must mesh activities together in tight and timely ways. Even when coordination is less daunting, every team and organization depends on people with enough general knowledge to grasp how the system fits together and enough particular knowledge about each part to do specific tasks well .

5. Bolster Collective Brainpower: Increase Cognitive Capacity Instead of Adding More People
Organizational designers sometimes assume that bringing in “new blood” propels innovation and performance. There are times when outsiders bring fresh ideas that help broken organizations and projects abandon obsolete and destructive mindsets.

Organizations and teams that juggle a constant influx of strangers are prone to the same coordination problems, weak social bonds, bitter conflict, and related ugliness.

It is better to avoid such instability when possible. Whether you are selecting a leader, scaling up a new team or organization, or running an existing project team, sticking with savvy insiders and stable teams and blending people who have worked together before are better paths. Stable teams are more adept at drawing on each other’s strengths and countering their weaknesses, and they mesh together their ideas and actions more efficiently and reliably.

If you are forming a new team, or fixing an old one, try to bring in at least two or three people who have worked together effectively before.

Speaking of talented women, if you want a smarter team, make sure that it has a lot of them. Carnegie Mellon’s Anita Williams Woolley and her colleagues studied 669 people in groups that had two to five members. Groups with higher percentages of women had greater “collective intelligence,”performing better on cognitively demanding tasks, from “visual puzzles to negotiations, brainstorming, games and complex rule-based design assignments.” Woolley’s research team set out to study collective intelligence, not gender. But they kept finding that groups with more women performed better on “collective intelligence”tests. Groups with more women typically had superior social sensitivity and thus members cooperated and wove together their talents more effectively. Women were more in tune than men with others’emotions. They listened more carefully, they allowed others to take turns speaking, and their groups weren’t stifled by one or two overbearing members—increasing their capacity to perform complex and difficult tasks. These researchers also found that “having a bunch of smart people in a group doesn’t necessarily make the group smart”because the “average and maximum intelligence”of individual members isn’t linked to performance. Socially sensitive men also help make teams smarter. But if you can’t test for this trait before forming a group or adding new members, remember that men are typically the weaker sex in this regard.

People also have a greater capacity when they aren’t worn down by work and worry. When people get enough sleep, they are more adept at difficult tasks, are more interpersonally sensitive, make better decisions, and are less likely to turn nasty. Certainly, there are times when emergencies and harsh deadlines render sleep impossible. But scaling is a marathon, not a sprint. The humans who propel it will be smarter and nicer if they get enough sleep and even nap at work.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill praised naps: “Nature had not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”

If you want to make good decisions as the day wears on, watch for signs of fatigue. Even seemingly trivial levels damage performance. Build in ways for yourself and others to take breaks, whether it’s getting a bite to eat or taking a few minutes to stretch your legs. It sounds easy to implement. Yet too many hard-charging leaders and busy teams don’t do it.

Scaling requires a balancing act. The aim is to travel forward in the sweet spot between too much and too little complexity as your footprint expands to more people and places— and without swamping people with more load than they can handle.

Scaling requires injecting just enough structure, hierarchy, and process at the right time. The key challenge, then, is knowing when to add more complexity, when it is “just right,” and when to wait a bit longer.

When you scale an organization, you will also need to give ground grudgingly. Specialization, organizational structure, and process all complicate things quite a bit and implementing them will feel like you are moving away from common knowledge and quality communication. It is very much like the offensive lineman taking a step backwards. You will lose ground, but you will prevent your company from descending into chaos.

Chris Fry and Steve Greene, those executives who helped scale up Salesforce.com then led Twitter’s efforts to build the engineering organization, suggest: “Everyone knows that this is a bad way to treat a machine—they would never run a computer at 100 percent of capacity day after day because they know it will break. Why shouldn’t organizations, large or small, apply the same logic to their people and teams?”

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