19 August 2011

Bureaucracy at its Canadian "Finest"

In one volume of his landmark, sociological trilogy entitled, The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells describes bureaucracy as, "organizations for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal." In other words, bureaucracies strive to maintain the bureaucracy and its procedural systems at all costs (which often tend to be high costs) quite irrespective of the nominal purpose or tasks otherwise to be accomplished. The business of the bureaucratic organization is secondary to the preservation of the bureaucracy of the organization.

Such is indeed the case in what might be considered an archetype of a BAH (Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, Hierarchical) organization, the Canadian military. In a "landmark report charged with transforming the Canadian Forces," that was released this week, Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie identifies major restructuring and reallocation of funds away from non-operations-oriented staffing, instead recommending more resources be provided directly to "regular" Forces personnel - those women and men who are actually in the field, on the water, and in the air.

But bureaucracies will go to great lengths to reinforce and preserve themselves, with well-adapted immune systems that overwhelm "attackers" who might seek to create a more effective organization. In this regard, I will let Gen. Leslie's report speak for itself:
Reactions to previous reports urging reform
“If the results were likely to cause institutional angst, a variety of options existed, from waiting until the team disappeared, to conducting lengthy reviews of the recommendations and, finally to classifying the work to an extent that only a few could see it.”

On resistance to this report
“[At] a large meeting in December 2010 involving the generals, admirals and senior DND civil servants ... it became apparent the tendency was to argue for the preservation of the status quo. ... Though grimly amusing, these interactions proved that consensus has not and probably never will be achieved on any significant change.”

How DND handles funding cuts
“Most subordinate organizations have done their very best to preserve their structures, their internal funding (what they need to take care of themselves) and their process ... which usually result in overhead staying much the same while support to the front-line deployable unit is cut far more than originally forecasted.”

On waste and inefficiency
“These are symptomatic of old processes, new overhead layered on old, lots of committees and in certain areas a sometimes bewildering number of steps ...to actually achieve a government directed spending outcome.”
Although it might be easy to chuckle at the "grimly amusing" responses of a military (or even the non-military departments of government) bureaucracy, if you are a leader in your respective organization, how familiar do General Leslie's caveats sound to you?

08 August 2011

Abolish Self-Appraisal? Not So Fast

I’ve just spent the morning flipping through the Harvard Business Review blog, with the odd tidbit of divergent thinking catching my eye (and my Twitter timeline). One item that provoked a “yes, but…” reaction was this item from Dick Grote in which he recommends abolishing self-appraisals from the annual employee review ritual. His argument makes some sort of sense, from a deterministic, quant-oriented, managerialist perspective in which the manager stands in loco parentis, so to speak:
I found study after study that consistently demonstrated that individuals are notoriously inaccurate in assessing their own performance, and the poorer the performer, the higher (and more inaccurate) the self-appraisal. Research by the consulting firm Lominger, Inc. indicates that “the overall correlation between self-ratings and performance was .00. The most accurate rater by far is the immediate boss.”

Further, in their article “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning report that, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.”

One senior executive, describing his company's experience using a forced-ranking procedure to identify its A, B, and C performers, told me of the same problem: “The As are afraid they'll be considered Bs, the Bs are scared they'll be seen as Cs, and all the Cs are convinced that they're A players.”
A pretty sad indictment of self-appraisal, overall. For me, however, jumping to the conclusion that because people are not skilled at self-appraisal the practice should be eliminated suggests (through similar logic) that, since the vast majority of managers at all levels have little training or expertise in assessment, appraisal, or organizational psychology, and are pretty poor at it, all appraisals should be done away with. Similarly for coaching, correction, motivation, and almost every other practice that is part and parcel of a manager’s day-to-day work. (And let me tell you: working as an organizational therapist and leadership coach, there are days when I am sorely tempted to suggest just that!)

The effect of annual job appraisals – invariably tied to annual salary reviews – is to reinforce the carrot-and-stick motivational theory, a theory to which we have become so culturally indoctrinated that it is taken as a law of human behaviour from our earliest childhood memories: “if you take out the garbage, clean your room, finish your peas, and do your homework, you’ll receive your full allowance.” Why does any adult manager today believe that such a paternalistic approach to contemporary employees will result in anything other than coerced compliance and unthinking adherence to strictly stated procedures—the bane of motivation, innovation, and success? (As an aside, have a look at Dan Pink’s Drive for an understanding of what really motivates people.)

Appreciative Practices (an adjunct to the OD intervention of Appreciative Inquiry) is one way of helping everyone – managers and their staff alike – learn the process of appropriate and useful reflection that encourages both organizational and individual learning from one’s activities. Grote, in his blog post, suggests that “a more effective approach is for the supervisor, at the start of performance appraisal season, to ask each direct report to send him an informal list of his or her most important accomplishments and achievements during the appraisal period.” Sadly, this focus on the “most important accomplishments and objectives” misses what I believe to be the true measure of contemporary organizational effectiveness in a complex environment, namely one’s tactility or the effects one has had on those whom the individual touches.

By considering effects from a place of positive contributions, an employee’s true value to the complexity of the organization can be appropriately assessed. An employee may be a tremendous catalyst to innovation, or to overall group dynamics that facilitated a team’s over-the-top performance. It is almost always the case that a supposed failure (specifically: failure to achieve one or more objectives that were stated 12 months prior without the benefit of precognitive abilities in either the manager or employee) has many very successful catalyzing aspects wrapped up in that supposed lack of achievement. Further, such an approach enables and encourages the employee not only to focus on their own development, but to become aware of development opportunities among the various constituencies with which s/he interacts. I recently described such a case in which an organization that formerly was guilty of all the shortcomings of self-appraisal to which Grote alludes was easily facilitated to accomplish the benefits of reflective learning instead.

So, in a funny way, I support Grote’s call for abolishing self-appraisals as part of the annual performance review. In fact I would go a step farther: abolish the annual performance review altogether (and especially, decouple it from compensation). In its place, substitute a culture of continuous, reflective and appreciative practices. An employee will always know where s/he stands, and an organization will always gain the benefit of learning and innovation.