Is your organization like a machine that needs programming? Or a community to nurture?
Every startup founder hopes to build a high-performance organization.
The question is, how do you do it?
Well, running an organization efficiently is a lot like programming a complex machine. You need each part of the machine (each person) to do the right work at the right time — that’s a programming challenge by itself. You also need all the individual parts to come together seamlessly. That makes the programming even harder — now you need to define clear goals, responsibilities, dependencies, and inter-relationships for each part.
Plus, you’ve got to set up the right incentives and guardrails to make sure everyone follows through. Otherwise, it’s all too easy for people to find themselves working at odds with each other or wasting their time on work that never gets used. Without good programming, your machine breaks down, and you can kiss your company’s productivity and growth goodbye.
Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel and father of OKRs, pioneered this approach in his classic book, High Output Management, in which he stated, “Managers are responsible for increasing the output of their organizations.” The key to high performance is translating all the important outputs into terms that are objectively measurable and holding people accountable for them. That allows everyone to know what progress is being made and how to drive further progress. Amazon is excellent at this — they’re famous for their clear and demanding performance standards, which push everyone to put their best efforts into achieving the company’s goals.
Your company is made up of human beings, and…
Human beings aren’t machines.
A group of people is a community, and communities need to be nurtured in order to thrive, not programmed. If you want people to perform well, you have to create the conditions that help them to do their best work. That means ensuring you have a clear purpose — a “why” that all your staff are excited about. It means having values that are shared and lived on a day-to-day basis. It means creating an environment in which people feel safe, supported, challenged, and engaged in their jobs.
Building this human-centric culture is the key to getting the full dedication, creativity, and productivity out of your people. It’s also key to attracting the best talent — why would superstars want to work in a company that treats them like cogs in a machine?
Folks like Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor and former exec at Apple and Google, know that the quality of human interactions in the workplace is the real driver of organizational performance. When people don’t feel good at work, or when they don’t have strong relationships with their coworkers, they underperform (so their talents go to waste), and they don’t stick around long (so turnover costs drag you down). So, it makes sense to invest in your company’s greatest resource — its people — and let them figure out what needs to be done. That’s what Google does, with its intense focus on building great coach/leaders and teams.
Wait. Which is it? Are organizations machines that need to be programmed or communities that need to be nurtured?
As a CEO, should you be the master programmer, analytical and objective? Or should you be the ultimate coach, empathetic and supportive?
Two “conflicting” paradigms
If you search for ideas on how to build a high-performance organization, or if you follow various management gurus, you’ll see that nearly everything and everyone falls distinctly into one camp or the other.
But the thing is…they’re both right.
These two paradigms seem to pull you in opposite directions. When you think about the companies that best embody each side, it’s clear they have very different values and ways of doing things. Machine-oriented companies like Amazon value productivity above all else and drive towards it relentlessly at every level (sometimes to the point of driving people away). Community-oriented companies like Google make huge investments in things that make employees happy but don’t always do much for productivity — and sometimes come at a big cost to short-term productivity.
These paradigms seem mutually exclusive, or at the very least conflicting. But the unavoidable truth is that you need both. You need ambition and systems and metrics to keep everyone on track and working hard towards a shared vision, and you need a collegial environment where everyone gets along and collaborates well, and a vibrant culture that brings out the best in your people.
That’s the definition of a high-performance organization: one that has both high productivity (getting the right stuff done quickly) and high positivity (creating a great workplace that draws in and retains the best talent).
Either one without the other won’t do the trick. If you’re highly productive but don’t invest in positivity, eventually the frictions and tensions in the organization will undermine collaboration, or even drive good people away — which undermine productivity. In other words, productivity alone is not sustainable.
And of course if you focus too much on positivity, your business won’t make the kind of dramatic progress that inspires the very best and most ambitious people — so as much as they may enjoy the environment, they’ll eventually wander off in search of bigger challenges, while your business ticks along.
Most CEOs instinctively recognize this dichotomy and try to balance the two, but most also instinctively tilt strongly one way or the other. At a practical level, the challenge is that each paradigm points you towards a different response on a whole range of org and people-related issues. For example, let’s say you have an employee who has been giving his best and who embodies your company’s values but has been consistently under-performing in his role, even after repeated feedback. What do you do? Fire him? Move him to another role? Continue to coach and support him?
Flip-flopping or unifying?
One way to navigate these decisions is to do the “staircase” — to flip-flop between focusing on productivity and positivity, depending on the issue at hand and how things are going. Let’s put that in visual terms.
If you plot productivity and positivity on two axes, this balancing strategy looks like a staircase. To get to the upper-right quadrant — where both productivity and positivity are high — you’re constantly deciding between choices that are more aligned with productivity or with positivity. First up, then to the side, switching back and forth to make progress.
This isn’t a terrible approach, but it makes it incredibly hard for your managers to know what to do in a given situation, since there is no consistent approach. Keeping a healthy balance is a constant challenge.
But what if you could find a way of pursuing both aims at the same time? What if you could find a unifying approach that brought these two paradigms together in harmony?
When things are in harmony, they reinforce each other. Then, you could replace the oscillating, rickety staircase with one smooth, self-reinforcing path that always trends toward the upper-right corner.
No changing directions, no internal inconsistencies, no ad hoc decisions: just one stable set of values and behaviors that continuously drive both productivity and positivity. An approach that consistently delivers great results for customers and shareholders, as well as employees.
Building the unified framework
I’ve spent the last five years working on such a unified framework. So far I have identified 43 practices that contribute both to productivity and positivity. Here are two very simple examples.
Flawless Listening. I know, you’re bored to death of hearing how important it is for leaders to listen. But what if you could give everyone in your company a magic pill that instantly transformed them all into fabulous listeners: the type who never interrupt when you’re in flow or in mid-thought… who are so engaged when they listen that they inspire you to keep going, to explore your thoughts farther than you have before. How might that transform your team’s ability to collaborate, solve tough problems, and innovate? And how might it impact people’s daily experience of what it’s like to work there?
Rounds. Even in the best team meetings, it’s hard to get everyone to fully and openly contribute their thinking on key issues, and to have them all feel truly heard. More often, a few voices dominate. Operating remotely has made this challenge even harder.
A Round is incredibly simple but massively impactful: after your team has got to the heart of the question you need to focus on, each person gets the opportunity to think about and speak to that question with a guarantee of not being interrupted. The golden rule here is that everyone speaks once before anyone speaks twice. As simple as it sounds, I’ve seen Rounds transform both the productivity and positivity of teams time after time.
What is your experience? Do you struggle with these two paradigms? Do you naturally lean one way? How do you try to balance them?
And what have you found that makes them work in harmony?
Let me know in the comments!