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Get SMART: A Conversation with Ed Muzio (Part 4)

Posted by on May 24th, 2012 with 0 Comments

Ed Muzio is the author of the award-winning books Make Work Great (McGraw-Hill, 2010) and Four Secrets to Liking Your Work (FT Press, 2008). His analytical approach to human productivity has been featured in national and international media, including CBS, Fox Business News and The New York Post; he is a regular contributor on CBS Interactive, The Huffington Post, and Monster.com.

Ed is funny and thoughtful. Over the next four weeks, you’ll see those qualities in our conversation about the impact of goals – particularly SMART goals (defined as Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) in the workplace.

4) Organizational Culture

Glenn: Ed, throughout this discussion, we’ve said that goals aren’t written or executed in a vacuum. Whether you’re in a school, a business, or another type of organization, the culture seems to have an impact on goal-setting. First, what is organizational culture?

Ed: Lots of people have a lot of definitions of organizational culture. The one I find most useful, and most pragmatic, happens to come from the thought leader often credited with inventing the term.  Edgar Schein of MIT Sloan said, basically, that org culture is a collection of precedents based upon what “we” – the org – learned about how to solve our problems in the past.

The translation of those precedents into behavioral patterns is the basis for everything I wrote about in Make Work Great. Culture is – or should be – interesting to businesses because the fact that we teach each other that “this is how it’s done around here” doesn’t mean that today’s problems are the same as yesterday’s, or that the behaviors from back then are appropriate or optimal now.   Said another way, when it comes to behavior, precedence and applicability are two different things – but, we tend to treat them as being connected.

Glenn: So I assume that these ‘organizational precedents’ impact goals?

Ed: Behavior around goals is no different than any other behavior – it may or may not be based on precedent, and it may or may not be optimal relative to today’s challenges.  Like I said, those two questions need to be decoupled.  You and I agree that creating SMART as Hell goals is appropriate and useful behavior.  For those organizations with relatively productive patterns (also called habits) around goal setting, “SMART as Hell” will be a natural enhancement and will probably come easily.  For those orgs where patterns of behavior around goals are less effective – those with lots of goal avoidance, lack of transparency, unclear or unarticulated goals, etc. – the ideas behind SAH will represent a departure from “how things are always done.”  That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be changed, but it does mean that change won’t come as easily.

In my work, we start from where the culture is, right now, and we implement small improvements that will grow into patterns of behavior over time.  This allows culture to change and improve organically – because culture is an organic process.

So, with that in mind, here’s a question for you that I’m surprised I haven’t asked before:  What, if anything, can you do to determine an organization’s readiness for the SMART as Hell approach to goals?  Just off the top of my head, I can think of two of my clients, one of whom would embrace SMART as Hell in a minute, and the other where the ideas would end soon as the training did.   Do you pre-screen in any way?  If so, how?

Glenn: Well, an informal ‘pre-screening’ occurs, because I don’t use a sales force. That means that the organizations I work with have approached me. I speak frequently about the problems that weak goals (or a weak goal culture) cause. Audience members who resonate with the problem approach me to help them fix that problem.

For me, the question around goals isn’t necessarily, ‘Do you want to change your entire goal culture’. Rather, the question is, ‘do you want to improve your goals’. I would love to change your culture, but I’ll settle for changing your goals.

Ed: That, to me, is a perfect statement of how any culture changes.   In my work I say a very analogous thing:  I don’t need to change your culture, I just want to change your behavior.  The rest will take care of itself.

Of course, in all this changing, it’s important to suspend judgment. It’s easy to look at an “inappropriate” culture around goals and call it “bad” – to say, for example, “In this company people are unwilling to articulate clear goals, and that’s bad.”  But from a culture perspective, you have to realize that, most likely, behavioral patterns emerged from USEFUL behaviors – truly useless ones don’t’ survive.  So, you have to ask WHY.  First, WHY in the past was it useful not to have clear goals, and second, WHY in the present would it be more useful?  Judging any culture as bad would be like looking at a tree and saying “it grew wrong.”  There’s no point blaming the tree for being bent, but there may be some utility in figuring out what lighting conditions, wind, soil, etc., caused it to grow that way – especially if we want to get it to change.

So, with that in mind, what are the least optimal – notice I’m not saying “worst” – goal-related behavioral patterns you’ve seen? What are the reasons they emerged?

Glenn: There are many, but I’ll name three:

The first sub-optimal behavior is ‘vagueness’. Most goals are stunningly vague. This occurs largely because writing good goals takes time, effort, and skill.

Most people can’t tell the difference between strong and weak goals. And most goal training doesn’t show people precisely how to do this. I’ve used the SMARTometer – our tool for measuring the strength of a goal – in conferences filled with consultants and facilitators who teach goal-writing, and 90% of their goals don’t meet the SMARTometer criteria. That’s the problem I’m trying to fix.

The second sub-optimal behavior is ‘sandbagging’ – the lowering of your targets so that you can easily reach your goals. This happens because, let’s face it, people are afraid to fail. And in many org cultures, people know that they’ll be allowed to fail. That’s no fun, so you hedge your bets.

The third sub-optimal behavior is ‘lack of accountability’. Few organizations hold their people accountable to writing strong goals. This lack of accountability, partially driven by a lack of knowledge about goals, allows the first two patterns to happen.

So, we’re back to ‘goal culture’ aren’t we? Are goals the ‘chicken or egg? Should we have goals for organizational culture? Or does organizational culture determine goals?

Ed: Yes.

Just kidding.

A goal-focused culture will tend to have goals on making it goal-focused. A non-goal focused culture will tend not to have goals to keep itself non-goal focused.  Either way, there will be pressure to stay the course – whatever the course is.  In the first situation, that pressure will come through goals about goals.  In the second, it will come through whatever set of behaviors the org already uses to keep itself on track.

Of course, when a behavior is mismatched to the current reality, there’s also always pressure to come into alignment.  Consider org charts.  The use of org charts is a historical precedent – they came about in the 1850’s as a way of organizing people, and we still use them today to represent our groups, even though they no longer adequately capture our reality.  Here’s a video about that:  www.groupharmonics.com/helpdesk/OrgChart.htm.   But even though we use them, we all also take them with a grain of salt.  The system wants to correct.

If I were in your shoes, in organizations with less-than-optimal behavioral patterns around goals, I would always be looking for that pressure, that push, to move from inappropriate /mismatched behavior to more useful, pragmatic, SMART as Hell behavior.  Do you?  If so, do you have insights into what the source of that pressure usually is and how to harness it?

Glenn: To date, I have not been invited into any companies that don’t want to change their goal culture. Fundamentally, however, goals are a blind-spot for organizations. We are so used to crappy goals that – like crappy television – they have become invisible. The SMART as Hell mission is to “change the world one goal at a time”, because it just takes one good goal to make a difference.

Because of that, I don’t focus on changing an entire culture or even every goal that an individual produces. For me, the interesting challenge is:

  • What is important to you?
  • How do you want to change it?
  • What goal can we write that will help you catalyze energy around that goal?

I’m content – to steal your line – to impact “cultures of one”.
But assuming we wanted to change an organization, what would a healthy goal culture look like?

Ed: Well, you know that my view on healthy culture – meaning high output, low stress culture – is that it’s necessary for work to be fully definable and discussable in terms of what I call six types of Overtness.

These are:

  1. Purpose (what you’re trying to accomplish),
  2. Impact (how it benefits the org),
  3. Incentive (how it benefits you),
  4. Progress (how you know you’re getting there),
  5. Resources (what you need from the org to get there), and
  6. Capability (what you need from yourself to get there).

Healthy goals, in my view, either encompass these elements directly, or set us up to be overt about them. Take impact, for example – the goal itself may or may not state the broader impact to the company of the work, but it had better be articulated clearly enough to make the impact traceable, if not obvious. Otherwise, even if it’s a well written goal, it might not be a useful one.

Here’s another question I’m amazed I didn’t ask sooner:  You’re intimately familiar with my six forms of Overtness.  Which of them do you think belong within the text of a SMART as Hell goal, and which are downstream?  Is it always the same, or is it case-by-case?

Glenn: I see your six forms of Overtness as creating a sort of ‘system’ to communicate goals in an organizational culture. You will need to understand the impact and incentives of your goal, ask for resources, acquire capabilities, and track progress. The collection of your goals should, at any point in time, define your purpose.

And that seems like a perfect bow with which to wrap this conversation. Thanks for your time, Ed!

Ed: Thank you, Glenn.  As usual, I’m coming away from our interaction smarter, and better able to articulate what I’m trying to do, too.  I think you’re making me SMART as Hell, one conversation at a time.

To “Make Work Great”, learn more about Ed and his work through the resources below. 

Links

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