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Diagnosing, Remedying Organizational Growing Pains

Management gurus contend that good companies emerge by being at the right place at the right time and that they develop opportunistically—by accident and not by design. These same companies fail to succeed when times change, and they are either unable or unwilling to alter their cultures, processes or structures in order to move to the next level.

Often, organizations also fail to embrace and use metrics and analytics to track performance and create a culture that management expert Peter Senge refers to as a “learning” organization.

Here are several signs that might indicate that a company needs to take stock in order to sustain ongoing growth, along with suggested steps to make that happen.

Sign No. 1: “It’s not my job” syndrome. One manufacturer believed that the only way its people would step up to the plate and move the company to the next level would be if they had specific descriptions of their duties, since the hue of their employees was “It’s not my job.” But after some discussion, the company managers realized that it was not a lack of job descriptions; rather, it was the lack of a culture of accountability that led to this mantra. Thus, once it created a new culture in which everyone was responsible for the business’s growth, the manufacturer finally realized this goal.

Steps to take to build a culture of accountability:

  • Ensure that the team knows that organizational success is everyone’s job. No one gets off the hook from driving performance.
  • Make sure your team understands what the organizational goals are and how their jobs affect the achievement of them. Employees want to have a line of sight from their jobs to organizational success.

Sign No. 2: Confusion regarding expectations. If workers are unwilling or unable to see what needs to be done without being told, chances are the culture has blocked this vision. Often, a leader unwittingly undermines accountability by micromanaging staff or undermining independent decision-making. As a result, staff members do only what they are told to do.

Steps to take to clarify roles and delegate more effectively:

  • Communicate the organizational vision early and often so that all employees know where they’re headed. Everyone should be able to explain the vision and what it means.
  • Empower employees by reinforcing the good decisions that their teams make independently, and redirect workers when they go off-course.

Sign No. 3: Lots of activity without meaningful results. Busyness is not always productive, but organizations often reward employees for activity, not outcomes. Are all activities leading to outcomes that are aligned with the company’s mission, vision and values? If not, they might be substituting effort for intelligence. Learning organizations work smarter, not harder.

Steps to take to improve performance:

  • Articulate the outcomes expected of each team member. Be clear that outcomes, and not just activity, will be rewarded.
  • Work with teams to distinguish between mere activity and preferred outcomes, looking for ways to reduce activity in favor of meaningful results.

Sign No. 4: Pervasive blame-game culture. If individuals don’t own issues, it’s easy to point fingers and find scapegoats for missed deadlines or opportunities. In learning cultures there is a systematic way to create ownership for issues so that the blame game is a thing of the past.

Steps to take to build collaboration and engagement:

  • For each to-do task that is created in a team meeting, assign ownership to an individual and hold him or her accountable for results.
  • Document processes, focusing on key points of coordination among stakeholders, so that process errors are eliminated and collaboration becomes a habit.

Sign No. 5: Organizational blinders. If departments are working totally independent of one another without a focus on the common goals, this may lead to silos, which often hamper organizational success. Silos may even work at cross purposes, with one department’s win resulting in a loss for another department, thereby foiling organizational growth.

Steps to take to reduce conflicting organizational priorities:

  • Create cross-functional teams so that everyone sees how a win in one area might result in a miss in another area and how the organization needs to work together to reach mutual goals.
  • Eliminate rewards that recognize one team that succeeds at the detriment of another. Provide rewards only when the entire team produces a win.

In every organization long-term growth requires that the culture be fine-tuned and realigned in order to remain relevant and sustainable, since every business will likely face new competition, scarce resources and advancing technology, as well as other, unforeseen circumstances. Creating a learning organization by focusing on a culture of accountability can be achieved only when leaders identify these early warning signs of the need for transformation and then take action to build an effective, learning collaborative workplace.

Cathy Fyock, CSP, SPHR, is a senior HR/business advisor at the HR/benefits consulting firm Kushner & Company. She can be reached at, (502) 445-6539 or @Cathy Fyock.