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People First

We tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

–Charlton Ogburn, 1911-1998

I once helped a company establish its brand in a new vertical market. The company had hired a consulting professor from a prestigious university to help it with an organizational transformation. The transformation was to be completed in 90 days, start to finish. And the professor had written a book on how to undertake such a thing (natch) as if any such thing might actually be possible (It isn’t.) I arrived around day 60.

The book prescribed assigning all employees, regardless of their titles or their responsibilities, to cross-departmental, cross-disciplinary teams. Each team was given a process or a practice to transform. The ideas in those groups blazed like wildfire in a bone-dry forest — operational improvements, process-engineering concepts, counter-orthodox proposals, and more leapt into an atmosphere charged with imagination and creativity. The only thing hotter than the ideas was the enthusiasm they generated.

Based on those ideas, the organization was operationally re-evaluated and completely restructured. Most of the employees were given new roles and responsibilities based, in part, on the ideas they helped germinate. But …

On the morning after, day 91, the company, its hopes high and its sights set higher, found itself in a state of despondent dysfunction. Morale cratered. Productivity tanked. Product development ground to a painful crawl. Responsiveness declined, along with customer satisfaction. Management was mystified. It had created the perfect garden, had it not? But nothing grew. Everyone who’d known to whom to turn for knowledge and support in their old positions lost all their lifelines in their new ones.

The CEO expressed his bewilderment and his anger at people for not performing. I asked, “If you dropped seeds in sand and they didn’t sprout, would you be angry at the seeds? Or would you put them in a more fertile environment?”

Alas, Fearless Leader was not a man for analogy and metaphor. His inclinations were more along the lines of divide, distance, intimidate, and conquer. The closest he came to figurative speech was, “Floggings will continue until morale improves.” And his idea of change was that it should be top-down, driven only by and comfortable only to him. So, heads started to roll, which only exacerbated the problem by introducing fear and insecurity into an environment of unfamiliarity and uncertainty.

Throwing folks into the deep end may seem like a sound, hard-nosed management approach. But it reflects disrespect for people and disregard for their humanity.

Organizational transformation begins with people, not processes. Had the company known that, its reorganization would have been fluid, rather than rigid. People would have slid more productively into functional position, rather than being force-fit into a mandatory line. They would have adapted to and improved the new processes into which they were moved, rather than running blindly along with processes they didn’t understand. And they would have been able to forge alliances with their new positional colleagues as they transitioned in, rather than being left without safety nets when they were pushed out on the wire.

The effects of overlooking your people are neither pretty nor productive. And the only thing that suffers more than your people when they’re ignored is your brand.

People first. Always people first.

Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brienhttps://obriencg.com/
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.
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Kimberly Davis

Of course you’re singin’ to the choir with me, Mark. I couldn’t agree more! Beautiful example!

Dr. Mary Lippitt

Thanks for the reminder. I also have met leaders who use fear and finger pointing. They do learn eventually that when they point at otheres most of their fingers are pointing at them.

Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.

BAM! Nailed it, Mark! I have a philosophy that EVERYONE wants to contribute. Those who don’t – more often than not – will say that they feel like what they do doesn’t matter, so why bother. When people feel like they belong, like their contributions are valuable and the organization values them over profits and projects, they will always try to exceed expectations. Thank you for sharing this one!

Tom Dietzler

So often, someone’s “can’t miss” proposition to change the world is dreamed up in a vacuum, with only one person cooking up the formula. Those usually are famous for their suckfulness. Great illustration of how insistent we can be about some of our own fixations, despite how they might crash and burn when put into the human equation. There’s usually ample reasons for why things as complex and multi-faceted as “organizational transformation” can’t be something that is readily treated and fixed in someone’s 90 day fantasy. Usually, the kicker comes in because most “organizations” are peopled by those quirky things, people. The process can be guided, the process can be led by an injection of some new thoughts and techniques, like the great stuff that a Kimberly Davis brings to the table… but the peeps in the cubes, in the offices, doing the stuff, have to be the drivers. Great piece here, Mark, as usual. Don’t you get tired of setting the bar so high with all of this genius stuff?

People First

People First ?

Wait – I’ve seen that somewhere before … https://people-first.net

Needless to say – I do agree!

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