Control Trumps Intent

December 20, 2011

In his book, Disciplined Dreaming (A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity), Josh Linkner describes how his company ePrize won the business of UPS—but managed to enrage this new customer by doing something stupid: they shipped the first package of sales materials related to their very first promotion via FedEx.

How did this happen? Well, the employee who had the responsibility to mail the materials responded with, “Our shipping contract is with FedEx.”

Linkner says he learned two important lessons from this experience. First, a lack of awareness has what he calls a “gravitational pull” that pulls people into a state of semi-sleepwalking. The second is “the incredible power of rules and bureaucratic processes.” Linkner observes that, “People are quick to ‘follow along,’ believing it is more important to obey than to do what is obviously the right thing to do for their company.”

We all have stories like this, where people blindly follow procedure—even when it doesn’t make sense. Many times, people have been conditioned to operate this way. In an effort to drive consistency and predictability, organizations exert a strong dose of control through processes that become THE way of doing business, with no negotiation or deviation allowed. (Granted, some rules and procedures exist for legal or regulatory purposes and aren’t negotiable.)

Even for those who strive to do the right thing—to be more productive or to serve the customer better—it can be a frustrating experience to facilitate change in many organizations. Despite saying that they welcome constructive challenges, organizations can make the experience such an uphill battle that employees don’t consider it worth the effort to push for change.

The results are predictable:
  • Employees aren’t as engaged in their work as they could be.
  • Rigid processes can and will break down.
The solution?

Spend less time enforcing procedural compliance and spend more time engaging people by involving them more in understanding the business, who the customer is, and how their work contributes to delighting the customer. It takes extra time and effort, but connecting the work of your employees as directly as possible to the customer builds that awareness that Josh Liinkner talked about.

Loosen up and eliminate rigid processes! Provide guidance and a framework to work from, but don’t seek to control every aspect of people’s day. People want to do the right thing, but too much control leads individuals towards satisfying the process as their first priority. In other words, control can trump your intent of delighting the customer.

Sometimes—particularly in large organizations—it’s best to ask who the customer being served is. I don’t subscribe to the model of serving “internal” customers. True customers pay your organization in real dollars—and that is who your organization is serving. People need to be collaborating to collectively serve those real customers; focusing on internal customers can take people’s eyes off the ball and can skew thinking.


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