04 August 2008

The Department of Give-a-Damn

I had a conversation recently with one of my research participants. This person works for a relatively BAH organization where each person’s role is well-defined within the context of well-defined departments in well-defined divisions, all serving to further the vision, mission, and objectives of the organization, not the least of which is to make money for the shareholders. All in all, a pretty conventional, modern, business corporation. The problem for “Leslie” (a deliberately non-gender specific pseudonym that corresponds neither to the person’s real name, nor the person’s pseudonym in my research) is that Leslie’s role is not so well-defined. Don’t get me wrong: Leslie has specific job responsibilities. And, Leslie is among the top performers in the organization. But Leslie’s major contribution to the organization, one for which Leslie has been considerably recognized and rewarded, has been to Give-a-Damn.

Now, it seems to be endemic among employees of large organizations to not give a damn about anything that isn’t directly related to their job responsibilities (read: performance review and compensation). Often, as I’ve found in my research, that not-giving-a-damn is nicely expressed in terms that model the “transactional workflow” model that characterizes bureaucratic hierarchies: one department receives work from a “supplier” department, performs whatever process is appropriate, and passes the finished good or service to the next functional department in line. And that's the end of that. The individuals have no specific knowledge of what happens to their particular unit of work, or how it contributes (if at all) to the overall success of the organization. Nor do they... well.... give a damn about it. As another person so succinctly put it, “we are paid for what we are working on right now.” But this, in and of itself is not necessarily problematic. Assuming the organization’s objectives are well-defined, and the organization itself has had the appropriate functional decomposition, scope of control, and alignment of departmental objectives exercises performed, the entire thing should work like a well-oiled machine.

Sometimes, however, contemporary organizations operate like a machine whose oil needs changing. That’s where people who Give-a-Damn come in. They make connections among people who need to know about what each is doing, but don’t. You see, some folks don’t know what other folks are doing because the BAH design of the organization means they can’t know what the other is doing. Since there was no preconceived requirement for that particular flow of information, there is no information flow among those that should know - need to know - but don't. But, because Leslie Gives-a-Damn, and more importantly, understands the effects that the organization intends to have in its market among its (external) customers and suppliers, and also understands the internal dynamics of the organization itself, Leslie is able to make the necessary new connections among diverse individuals and departments, pretty much each and every day. And the machine continues to run, as if it were well oiled.

There should be a Leslie in every division. Someone whose job it is to Give-a-Damn. In fact, there could be a matrix management structure, with all the Give-a-Damners reporting up into a Give-a-Damn reporting structure. To parallel the reward-according-to-status hierarchy system for setting and measuring performance objectives and such, organizations can construct progressive levels that represent relative achievement, credentials, and business requirements for Giving-a-Damn: Associate Give-a-Damn, Junior Give-a-Damn, Give-a-Damn, Senior Give-a-Damn, Advisory Give-a-Damn, Vice-President Give-a-Damn, Executive Vice-President Give-a-Damn. It might even become a de facto requirement for the future Chief Operating Officer, President, or Chairperson to have experience Giving-a-Damn sometime in their career...

Or not. It seems to me that Giving-a-Damn is an emergent effect of individuals having a strong, reciprocal Socio-Psychological valence connection to the organization. Smaller organizational units within the larger organization that have similarly strong and reciprocal SP-valences can equally Give-a-Damn. If you care about your organization, and your organization demonstrably cares about you, then you’re likely to Give-a-Damn, much like Leslie does. In fact, much of Leslie’s own Identity valence is constructed along the lines of Giving-a-Damn.

By the way, want to know why Leslie called me today? Over the past number of months, both Leslie’s direct manager, and the organization as a whole have been sending signals that they don’t Give-a-Damn very much about Leslie, and others in Leslie's organizational milieu. It's not that they don't like Leslie, or don't appreciate what Leslie does (as demonstrated by the pretty good salary bump Leslie received at the last review). It's more like organizational apathy towards the people, and maintaining a tight focus on bringing in those results for stockholders - just the type of negative SP-valence energy that causes a person to question why it is that they work So Damn Hard. So how much longer do you think Leslie will Give-a-Damn, and effectively contribute to oiling what is a rather squeaky machine?

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Anonymous said...

Very well-written, Mark.

I've always wondered why so many BAH organizations think the cogs in their "well-oiled machine" are the people.

If the people were the cogs and gears, and the procedures were but lubricant, it would imply you could replace the procedures and the machine would continue running.

It's the other way around; the procedures are the cogs, the people keep it lubricated. And the lubricant needs to be replaced regularly to keep the machine running.

This causes an obvious problem, of course: who wants to be the lubricant in a big machine?

Mark Federman said...

Thanks, aaron, and a nice metaphoric observation. And we must not forget that it is the lubricant that gets squished between the cogs!