Why getting naked is the key to business effectiveness
By Christopher J Tipler
In business we make hard work of lots of things and accountability is one of them. We know that we must commit to achieving outcomes and we know this commitment must be made by individuals, by work groups, by whole functions and divisions, and by the corporation.
Yet, commitment in business is more associated with fear and punishment than with enthusiasm and reward. For most, accountability as a subject is about as appealing as a visit to the dentist, and for some employees it is a very frightening part of their employment contract. Far from being welcomed, it is to be avoided if possible by keeping your head down and letting others take the risk of being measured. Creativity is an obvious casualty here, along with diminished personal satisfaction.
These hesitant and fearful attitudes reflect the fact that accountability does not flow naturally and easily from the activities of the organisation, and the people in it. If it did, we would not need to thrash our people with key performance indicators, tension-filled performance reviews, pep talks, anxious budget sessions and the pressure to react when things are off-track. These are all symptoms of dis-ease, or lack of ease. This lack, in turn, reflects poorly designed planning and decision-making processes which inhibit the natural flow from intent to outcomes. So we compensate by viewing accountability as a separate dimension of management that must be attached to the system if it is to work. It becomes a generally distasteful way of expediting; a clunky bolt on.
In this context, it is not surprising that managers typically don’t enjoy enforcing accountabilities and often do it half-heartedly. You see this reflected particularly in a reluctance to have the honest conversations that would lead to useful performance appraisals.
The good news is that, if you want things to flow naturally and easily in your business (so that you hardly need to talk about accountability) all you have to do is get naked, bare all, show some skin! Sounds interesting, even a little unusual you say..…. Let me explain.
Good outcomes will be a natural and easy result of our ambition if we define the pathway for our people and our business through an explicit focus on capability, linked to a clear image of success. We do this by simply asking ‘what must we excel at to win?’ To make each of these things (which I call arenas) actionable we then ask ‘what does it mean to excel at this?’ These ‘recitals’ are, in effect, invitations to act. If we have defined six arenas, and if each arena has, on average, six recitals, then we are holding 36 invitations to do something. One might think of them as invitations to a strategic dance.
At this point the ‘way’ of the system – the pathway for action – is normally so clear that the acts themselves (sometimes called strategies) are obvious. To make them completely obvious we construct action plans in two sensible time frames – 180 days for things that must happen now and 24 months for the bigger things. The 12-month budget time frame is a poor action-planning horizon driven by financial reporting rather than strategy.
The questions that create the arenas and recitals, and the responses to them, are asked and made by the organisation as a whole, so cross-functional behaviour becomes automatic; the organisational silos see no need to defend, as they are part of a winning agenda. Cooperation becomes natural.
Through these simple steps everything about the way is made explicit – our ambition itself (expressed as winning), what we must excel at, precisely what it means to excel at these things, and what we intend to do. We are completely naked and on show. Nothing is hidden, uninspected or not talked about.
Everyone understands the agenda; everyone sees what needs to be done, and what they have to do, to make the picture of winning a reality. Enthusiasm and commitment emerges because people love to win; show them how and you tap into wellsprings of creativity and energy. In this situation, who needs to be held accountable? It would be like insisting that a child eat a lolly. In any event, in this situation, accountability tends to shift away from individuals to the work groups or teams who are implementing the agenda. Then individual performance becomes a team matter and can normally be handled at that level.
Business winners in our uncertain times will be the corporate nude-nuts; the management teams that cut through all the complexity and difficulty created by dysfunctional decision-making processes, by skilfully linking ambition to capability in a way that puts the whole system on the table. The approach, set out clearly in my book Corpus RIOS, has been called ‘enlightenment for business’. Perhaps, but it is certainly a methodology for business leaders, whose only task is to help their organisation create and maintain effective intent.
So, get metaphorically naked and enjoy the natural rewards of winning in business…
Christopher Tipler is a Melbourne-based management advisor and author of Corpus RIOS – The how and what of business strategy. His web site corpusrios.com contains more material on this and related topics.