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High Functioning Organizational Dysfunction

Adam Asch
Reading: High Functioning Organizational Dysfunction

Budgeted resources are fully allocated to capacity, “Features” are being developed, Stakeholders are happy – what could be better?

Scratch the surface however, and this thin veneer of accomplishment begins to show the truth that lies right beneath.

It doesn’t happen overnight, and it is almost always with the best intentions, but before you know it a functioning organization becomes a dysfunctioning one – how do we let this happen? Why does it happen again and again? Why don’t we recognize the difference?

Let’s explore some patterns and solutions that can help us get out of the rut.

Organizational Dysfunction 1: Output vs. Outcome

Being busy at work is a good thing.  It should mean that you have enough to do at your job that you have a day filled with meaningful activities. Not just any activities, but ones that add value to the product or project.  Think about them actually adding measurable change to your team. This kind of day requires that there is a well managed stream of work, people who have the skills we need to perform the work, and managers that are interested in growing the skills and abilities of their team.

That is not what I usually see when I first began working with a new organization.  I see resources that are allocated to account for 40 hours a week of assignments. I see overworked and overwhelmed or underworked and underwhelming employees.  Lots of folks show up, make noise, cause distractions, create drama and come back the next day to do it again. I see employees that find new jobs as soon as they can to get out of the dysfunction – I see others that keep the dysfunction alive to hide the fact that they produce and contribute nothing. What this usually means is that I have individuals that someone treats as place holders for space and time on a spreadsheet so that instead of having to manage outcomes they will manage outputs.

Resolve Dysfunction 1

The first step we take is to treat our resources as people – when we remove the language that identifies people as things, we begin to think of people as assets. Assets are valuable and we tend to care for valuable things. The second step is to start considering what people are producing and not how many hours they are in the office. The truth is that no one is working non-stop for 8 hours a day. It is also very unlikely that allocating people to 10 different projects at any given time will produce valuable results. What we need to do is understand that our capacity is more limited than we would like and that more work in progress is different than completing more work more quickly. Then we build teams – teams of people that can take accountability for how they do the work they do. The amount of effort that goes into managing times then applied to managing productive outcomes. It’s hard to manage time on a spreadsheet – it’s easier to manage teams of people dedicated to your goals.

Organizational Dysfunction 2: If we build it…..

Let’s just say that we have addressed Dysfunction 1. We now have a satisfied and motivated workforce – what should they be doing?

I hear this a lot when I inquire as to what and why organizations are building what they are building: If we build it, they will like it. Then I ask who is using the thing? – “No one”, who asked for the thing? – “Our VP of…”, who is talking to the customer? – “No one”.

If we build it, they will come is a great idea for a movie plot, but not so good for an organization that is spending large sums of money to build things. How did this become a common pattern? It’s not too hard to figure out why – the people we build things for didn’t like the fact that we build things without including them, so time after time of disappointment, we stop talking to each other. What does a product or technology organization do then? Now as you are reading this you say – “Well clearly that makes no sense”, but you would be surprised how often this happens. The first step here is to begin to build a partnership with our customers & stakeholders – we need to begin again from the perspective that we are all one organization with a common goal to be successful. Success can mean a  lot of things, but usually it means that we are making money.

Resolve Dysfunction 2

Now it’s not easy, and a bunch of people will have to check some ego at the door, but the only way to get it done is to start talking – what are our common goals?; what is our vision for our product or project?; how can we ensure that we are building something valuable and useful? In this case, let’s build backlogs. Backlogs tell us what we want to build, give us definitive information to have conversations with our teams and stakeholders around, and a view into what we are actually intending to produce.

Organizational Dysfunction 3: Truth or Consequences

The 3rd Dysfunction is the most difficult to identify and address – not that it isn’t obvious, it’s that it’s hard to see when you’re in it. The 3rd Dysfunction involves the ability to be introspective – is your company telling itself the truth or a lie? It is not unusual for someone to tell me, “we are more productive than we have ever been.  Our teams are cranking out software!”. Digging a little deeper, I find teams building software no one will ever use.  No one has asked for it and no one can define the value for it. Are people crazy? Are they in another world? No. They are fooling themselves that being busy is being productive. Maybe worse, they institutionalize this way of thinking.

Resolve Dysfunction 3

Dysfunction 3 is a tough one, but we can solve this one too. Let’s produce working tested software and put it into production. In other words, let’s build relationships and communication with our teams, customers & stakeholders with real feedback from real people. Let’s start listening and learning from our real interactions.

Is the journey to tackling the dysfunction easy? No. Can you reduce them overnight? No. But recognizing the patterns is the first step in addressing high functioning dysfunction.

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Adam Asch is an Executive Consultant, speaker and practitioner who is dedicated to leading and managing digital Programs, Products, Projects and Teams of all shapes and sizes.

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