My experience is predominantly within large, Fortune-class companies. It is possible that many of my observations apply on to organizations that have grown to tens of thousands of people over many, many years. I do not know if many of the same ailments apply to smaller companies – although with the exception of the odd start-up, I suspect that the same commitment-issues plague us all.
We have fostered corporate environments in which we place greater value on conformance to a plan – or commitment to a goal – than we do on maximizing delivery. Most organizations I encounter provide little or no real incentives for teams or individuals to pursue ambitious, often unachievable goals. On the contrary, the way management and customers react to a team potentially missing stated objectives forces teams to set the bar as low as possible.
In order to limit the chance of failure, we find ourselves constantly answering the question: “what is the least amount we can deliver to keep management satisfied?” This hardly seems like a winning business objective. Failure today is defined by how much reality deviates from the states plan. Because we can do little to alter reality, to minimize the risk of failure, people become be hyper-conservative. This is what happens time-and-again on project teams. As key dates approach and scrutiny increases, people seek to minimize their risk of failure – as it is defined today.
This principle is pervasive in most organizations. Hardly a week goes by without someone asking: “What has changed that is causing us to change the plan?” or “What has caused us to deliver less than we ‘committed’ to?” In practical terms the answer does not matter.
I am sure there is a sports analogy that escapes me that could be inserted here, but the bottom line is that we need to create a mindset where failure no longer means not ‘completing’ everything – but rather not ‘attempting’ to.
Customers often bring up the word ‘commitment’. I hear this word thrown around in almost every organization I encounter. It frequently is used in the context of “Why have you failed to deliver what you committed to?” It’s a very handy word to beat someone over the head with. The problem is, it implies that a team somehow had the option of whether or not to meet their commitments. That somehow a team chooses to ‘under-deliver’. Obviously this is not the case. The truth is we cannot ask a team to commit to a body of work — we can only ask them to commit to doing their best to achieve it. When we ask more of them – they will simply commit to as little as possible.
I remember as children it was encouraged to have lofty goals. I remember a teacher once advising me to set goals that might seem out of reach – and then strive to achieve them. That was often pointed out to me as a way to “maximize my potential.” As adults, perhaps we should follow that same advice.