Organizations are Like Hair

When I was young and wild, I had beautiful hair.  To be honest, I’ve never cared for hair since I was in the 9th grade I’ve been cutting it as short as possible, and I’ve been doing it long enough now that I have no idea what color my hair is anymore. So, although I do not fit the bill, the metaphor I’m about to make, still works.  That metaphor is that organizations are like hair.

I know people that cut their hair every two weeks.  They never change the style, they never experiment.  They know what works and they are the guys that say things like, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, “you don’t mess with the classics.”  They keep tight control over their hair and never let it get out of sorts.  This example shows what most leaders and managers want in their organizations.  They fight to stay standardized and look to control as much of their processes as possible.  There are many organizations that this works for, but this kind of leadership does not leave room for innovation and progress.  You can’t adjust processes and functions when you are doing the same things.

Additionally, you can’t change your hairstyle in any meaningful way without going through that weird medium length sloppy-hair stage.  You know, the stage where some will only lay flat and others will only stick straight up.  This is the stage where you test your commitment to the new style.  How much do you want it? If you are weak, or if you aren’t sure of what you want, you will quit and go back to what you know.  This stage in the organization is where most leaders lose their nerve and think the new efforts have failed.  On many occasions, this early exit is a tragic mistake which causes future efforts to die before they even happen.  Leaders must accept there is going to be growing pains with progress.

Eventually, you will have to cut your hair.  That doesn’t mean you have to go back to your old style, but you do need to get it back under control and set things right again.  Organizationally, this means you have to pull the crazy experimenting back a bit and look at providing more stable processes.  There will always be a need to experiment and take some risk, but after letting your people get wild and outside of the box, you will need to bring all that back in and get the balance back to the organization.  Too much wild-wild-west type of stuff in the organization can be exhausting so you will want to keep some of the momentum going for progress, without so much risk and experimenting.

So, let your hair grow and give your people some room to try new stuff!


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Do Tradition and Heritage Hold You Back?

Standardization ruins organizations.  Once we get to the point that we are trying to make everyone do the same thing, without thought, we are doomed.  Most organizations and the people within them get into a rhythm.  They have the same annual events, traditions, and these events are rarely discussed with any serious intent.  The members of the organization are expected to uphold these traditions, and the leaders often expect everyone to participate.  But do these traditions do anything positive for the organization?

It depends.  Most of our traditions are no longer providing value to our processes but are more about culture.  But even traditions that contribute to culture can be problematic.  The military’s Change of Command Ceremony is one such example.  When the ceremony was created, it was done so out of necessity.  Most personnel in a military unit did not know who the commander of the unit was, and it caused much confusion on the battlefield.  This ceremony was designed to show everyone who the new commander was to alleviate that problem, and it worked.  Fast-forward to today, and we continue the tradition, but there is rarely an occasion where members will not know who the unit’s commander is, but we still spend weeks preparing for these ceremonies every two years.  The commander’s and their families enjoy them, and it is a great honor for them to earn a command, but almost everyone else is there because they are required.  The officer/enlisted structure is also antiquated and has lost its usefulness.  On the positive side, the military’s uniforms, many of the customs to include saluting, standing for senior members, reveille, retreat, taps, and countless others add to the discipline and positive culture of the units.

And what about the senior members of the organization?  Could they be holding back innovation?  Much like standardization, continuity is a term we must be careful with.  There is a point that continuity stops helping and starts holding the unit back from progress.  Something that was tried in the nineties may very well work now.  Not because we are better, but because technology may have made things easier than they were in the past.  We need to ensure our senior members value change and progress over standardization and continuity.

We must be cautious of sacrificing any future progress for short-term gains.  It might be tempting, but the short-term gains that too much standardization and continuity provide are addictive and will become the culture your organization begins to form around.  Soon enough, your organization will become irrelevant because short-term gains cannot compete with long-term progress.  Of course, this is not easy, and nobody has the perfect answer, but we must be brave enough to have the conversation.  It may feel bad to say the DoD no longer needs a separate officer and enlisted core, especially from the officer’s perspective, but it’s a conversation we must have, or we risk becoming too caught up in tradition.


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How to Get Promoted

Everyone wants to get promoted. Even the people that say they don’t really do want it. They just may not be willing to do the work that is involved in earning the promotion. Most organizations prefer to promote within. It is a good practice to hire a person who understands and is accepting of the culture and knows the business well. In most cases, this will give you an advantage. Other times, they will want someone from the outside to provide a fresh, new perspective.

There are two critical keys to a promotion. Know what the organization values and who the gatekeepers are.

The most important aspect in getting that promotion is to figure out what the organization values. This is often not what “they” say they value. Look at what the managers and high-level leaders are talking about. What metrics do they track? What items are consistently communicated? Determining these values can be tricky, but it is important not to be fooled by cliché terms like, “work hard” and “give it your all.” Although they are important, working hard is the entry-level employee reason for promotion. Management positions require reading between the lines. Weekly emails from your manager about the training stats are a great indicator that training is important to the organization. If the monthly and quarterly award winners are the ones that innovate and drive change, then your organization probably values innovation and improvements.

Determine the gatekeepers and know what they need to give you passage. The gatekeepers are the people that can stop you from progressing. Everyone in the organization will have an opinion, but there are only a few that hold the real power to block a promotion. Your peers and others in the organization will probably have influence with the gatekeepers, but their influence is only effective if your actions leave room for doubt. Doubt about whether you are right or wrong for the promotion.

If you don’t value the same things your organization or the gatekeepers value then perhaps you aren’t in the right organization. Those things will change over time, but the big things you are passionate about should be a focus for the organization as well. In an ideal situation, the things you believe are important for promotion should also be what the organization values.

Once you identify the values another great piece of advice is to solve your boss’ problems. Don’t be a “yes man” or a “brown-noser,” but solving your boss’ problems will provide many benefits to you, most importantly, more autonomy in the future.

Perfection is Dumb

There was a speaker we were invited to listen to at my organization. The topic of his speech was perfection, namely, the pursuit of perfection. He believed and wrote a book with the premise that to achieve excellence we must use perfection as the goal. Anything less than aiming for perfection is acceptance of mediocrity. By accepting these lower standards, he believes the organization is going to be less effective when it could be much better. “Practice makes perfect!” was a common theme.

Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes progress. I wish I could credit the author of that statement, but where I heard it escapes me. There are times when the goal of perfection is appropriate. Perfection is necessary when there is an almost a singular focus, such as professional athletes and others in very narrow fields. An Olympic sprinter most certainly does not accept 99% as good enough. Golfers strive for the perfect swing, bread-makers aim for the perfect loaf of bread; the list goes on and on. But the vast majority of organizations have way too many tasks to worry about to expect perfection.

The reality that so many of us struggle with is where do we draw the line between perfection and greatness. In addition to this decision, we also must decide what task or core function of the business needs to be focused on to achieve greatness and what can be done “good enough.” The “good enough” tasks are so difficult for leaders and managers to allow or to even acknowledge their existence.

Leaders rarely want to admit “average” into their organizations. But the reality is there isn’t an organization in the world that is great at everything. This is where the leaders of the organization need to look at their core mission and identify all the tasks and processes that go into being great at their core mission. Everything else needs to be done well enough that is doesn’t detract from the greatness.

Take extra care to know how each process affects another. In my experience, many managers have approached training as a formality and only value hands-on training to educate their workforce. Because of this, they have made the argument that training should be a “good enough” task. This is not a good example of a “good enough” task. Training affects the performance of all duties in the organization and being truly great in this area builds a solid foundation for the employee.

The bottom line, decide and communicate the processes that you must be great at for the core purpose of the organization, then decide what level of performance is good enough for the other processes. Be disciplined enough to avoid improving a task or process from 90% to 91% at great effort. The juice is not worth the squeeze in this case; especially if the process isn’t a core process you have identified for greatness.