Most leaders are eager to learn the secrets how to improve organisational performance, and there are countless books how to do this more or less painfully.
Yet, the actual changes needed are not about culture but of structure; changes that challenge the common views and are therefore often discounted as actual solutions.
I have lately had the opportunity to discuss with two very different colleagues on how our work environment and the structures within organisations challenge or foster innovation and well-being at the workplace.
One older colleague who is in a senior position in a large establishment noted that creating a safe and inspiring workplace environment is just common sense: given that we spend most of our time at work, workplace should be a place where you want to go and feel like you thrive.
Another colleague has been graceful enough to spend time with me thinking about how one could create more open structures within our university, structures that would enable deeper talks and foster a more team like environment.
There are several key factors that can enable organisations to be engaging and innovative places and these very much rely on re-thinking what we measure, how and why.
Project skill-fit and return on politics
In Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots, some of the core concepts in explaining organisational behaviour and the extent they can innovate are “project-skill fit” and “return-on-politics”.
Project-skill fit means the degree that an individual is well suited to the task that she or he has been given, whereas return-on-politics is a measure of how much of lobbying an individual should or can do to influence the boss to get a promotion.
“At companies where employees receive very little training or are assigned to projects carelessly with little consideration how well the projects suit their skills, this measure of project-skill fit will be low. At companies that invest heavily in training, in recruiting the most talented people, and in carefully managing assignments, it will be high”. (p. 198)
Similarly, the return-on-politics is the time necessary to be spent (that takes away from work time) in lobbying upper levels to secure a promotion.
This is important because there is a balance where the system tips towards closing down on innovation.
You can’t create incentives for the staff to both do amazing project work while simultaneously lobbying intensively for promotions:
“If companies create review systems that guard against politics, invest in developing their employees’ skills, and do a good job in matching employees with projects that allow their skills to shine – those companies will increase their likelihood of nurturing loonshots”(p. 199).
Other ideas how to do this would be to actually reward “teams for collective outcomes” (p. 221) where the individuals are not rewarded for individual achievements but how the team performs.
These are core elements of organisational fitness where the balance is shifted towards collective outcomes and actions that demonstrate how individuals are performing as part of a team, and as a way to secure that innovation gets the focus it deserves.
Promote based on within knowledge, not simply on career length
One of the reasons that organisations stagnate is because everyone starts looking after their own interests rather than the big picture.
You know the story: someone has been a long time with the company so they steadily progress in their careers, year after year, and get slowly promoted because they have “done their time” and deserve a promotion.
However, what this type of system promotes is not really skills-based leadership but rather an organisational arrangement about how things are done.
You tick all the right boxes, and voila! You hop onto the next salary scale.
Those boxes however to be ticked might just be procedural issues, like have you written an op ed to a newspaper and promoted your research (external engagement), have you met with your supervisor frequently (tick), have you participated in internal institutional activities like workshops, and do you sit in committees.
Many of these activities say very little about the quality of your management skills or leadership skills for that matter, and what gets assessed is how well you have written your application and whether you manage to convince the assessing team that you have progressed in your career.
But what if your assessment and promotion was dependent on what your staff thought of working with you, if you were assessed on the number of opportunities that you had facilitated for those you work with?
This way the promotion is a shared decision, one in which the work community actually has a say as to who deserves a promotion and who hasn’t really worked hard enough in making the work place a great place to be.
This goes in stark contrast in how many organisations are structured and structure their incentive schemes, but such a more collaborative approach is key to organisational fitness.
It would also mean that people would need to pay very close attention to their own role in relation to the standard of well-being in the work environment.
Measuring leadership in climate adaptation
This has of course led me also to reflect on how we measure activities and outcomes in climate change adaptation.
The way that our current adaptation projects, programs and processes are monitored and evaluated (M&E) rarely focus on the quality of leadership.
We assume that the current M&E frameworks are robust enough to capture whether the project is achieving its outcomes and if not, why.
Yet, none of these metrics at the moment capture such factors as project leadership and ultimately rely again on the individual’s (project leader) story and description what has happened in the project and why.
Still, in most cases, especially in failed projects, the project leadership (although not always alone) is responsible for what is being delivered and what is not.
Imagine if we applied similar kind of thinking as in the business world where leadership would actually be measured and be one of the M&E variables that are being reported on.
How would people’s behaviour change if assessments of leadership would include the whole project team, the beneficiaries, and donors?
A truly 360 feedback experience (see here on 360 feedback positives and negatives) where also the actual implementation process was under scrutiny from multiple angles; a process where social learning was placed at the centre.
If all of these groups had a say in how well the project is actually fairing, how well it is managed, whether the leader is expanding opportunities, is good to work with, and displays supporting leadership behaviour?
And what if we fail?
I came across recently Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and failure and have been inspired also to think about failure in a new way.
As Safi points out in Loonshots, we should suck with curiosity, being curious as to why things turned out the way they did, why a particular initiative did not take off, why your idea was shut down, why your big plan of getting everyone on board is just not working.
Failure does not mean that your idea is fundamentally bad, or failing as a manager or leader does not mean that you are a bad person and a lost cause.
The concept of failure and learning from it requires vulnerability; vulnerability in terms of being able to acknowledge the failure, take a fair part of the responsibility, but not dwell on the negative but use it as a growth platform.
So the feedback systems that we put in place, the way we structure incentives to do the best work within our organisation; all of that results in increased or decreased organisational fitness.
Setting an incentive-based system for example for promotions could change the overall staff sentiment across a company if those incentives are made more equal and collective, where we would reward skill-based leadership and initiatives that increase work place well-being, of ourselves and those we lead to serve.
Otherwise we will stagnate, kill off innovation, and become a dinosaur; something big and great that once existed but failed to adjust.