Gravity can be a wonderful thing. It keeps us grounded on this big, beautiful, floating blue marble. It’s an irresistible force.
I once worked with an organization that had a catchphrase. When they encountered a challenge that was beyond the scope of control of a particular team or division, they would call it a “gravity issue.”
“It’s out of our control,” they explained, “much like gravity – you can’t do anything about it.”
Sadly, this mentality represents the culture in many organizations. Whether it’s the hierarchy, the bureaucracy or the processes, gravity seems to grow stronger as an organization matures. Sure, organizational gravity keeps the organization grounded and focused and it may also contribute to a passion for continuous improvement at a very tactical, discreet level. But, it also narrows that focus at the expense of innovation and adaptability, a few of the most critical abilities of successful organizations. So, how do we defy gravity?
The Key to Defying Gravity
Every company or organization begins as a plan. Never forget that! Planning is the key to defying gravity. It’s easy to think of everything we do in our working lives as processes. Your organization probably has a hiring process, right? This is the wrong way to look at it. Instead, think of it as a hiring framework. Don’t you do some planning for each position you must fill? Of course you do. Every new hire isn’t exactly like the other. But, we still like to call it a process which evokes the image of a manufacturing line.
What about a new project? Any planning in that? Sure there is. And even though there may be some processes involved, large-scale projects are unique. In a sense, they’ve never been done before. If you are an entrepreneur pursuing a new business idea, you begin with a plan. That plan may be a formal business plan or it may just be an idea sketched out on the back of an envelope.
Ultimately, with success, those plans transform into processes – the sustaining framework of the business. And that’s where gravity begins to tighten its grip.
As our ideas coalesce into plans and the plans further coalesce into concrete processes, organizational gravity strengthens and holds the organization together. It is this necessary and proper transformation from plan to process that perpetuates the relentless assault of organizational gravity. As a positive force, we might call it focus, but the converse is a dark side more closely resembling stagnation and paralyzing bureaucracy.
How do we balance the need to “break the surly bonds of earth” to adapt and innovate while maintaining the grounded focus? By freeing ourselves from the constraints of organizational gravity while anchoring ourselves safely in the terra firma of our proven processes.
This takes a constant commitment to doing three things – always stating a clear objective; always aligning every objective to our purpose, and always planning over the process.
Always Have a Clear Objective
First, always have a clear objective. The objective is everything! I often observe individuals and teams charging forward to execute on some task or project without having a clear objective in mind. They get caught up in doing without thinking. If you stop them and ask what their objective is, they have a very difficult time articulating what it is they are attempting to achieve.
A clearly articulated objective enables line-of-site alignment between goals and tactics, often revealing the flaws in the initial approach.
Always have a defined objective for even the most routine tasks. This will help you think freshly in terms of a plan. Consider how you will achieve the objective. Question whether a given process or approach is really sufficient, effective, or relevant.
Align with the Big Picture
Second, align with the big picture objective – your purpose, mission, strategy and long-range goals. Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, makes this compelling point. Aligning to the big picture purpose, or as Sinek puts it, the “why you do it,” is what separates Apple from companies that make computers. Making something or providing some service is just the “what” and the “what” may change as the environment or market changes. But, the “why” never changes. The “why” helps us look beyond our terrestrial existence, the organizational gravity, and re-align to the fundamental reasons we and our organizations get up every morning.
When you constantly remind yourself of the “Why” and align your actions to the big picture, you simultaneously free yourself from constraints of process-thinking while grounding yourself in the fundamentals of the organization.
Plan Over the Process
Third, always plan over the process. The Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s world-famous flight demonstration squadron, fly the same show every performance, but the location changes. Do you think they fly a process? No, they fly a plan that they adapt to every different location, situation and changing weather condition.
Unless you are manufacturing the same widget day in and day out, you need to plan over the process. And, I guarantee that you won’t manufacture that widget the same way for too many years. Change always happens because just like gravity, it is relentless.
One can plan over the process by taking the standard process, clarifying the present objective, aligning that objective to the fundamental “why” of the organization, then asking a few questions.
First, ask what stands in your way—what threatens the successful accomplishment of your objective? Second, ask what resources have to help accomplish this objective? Existing processes fool us into making assumptions about threats and resources – that they remain the same, day-in and day-out. Never assume that a process may be followed blindly without considering the current context.
That’s planning over the process – never assuming a process is sufficient in any given scenario. Always plan fresh by considering new threats and resources, and then develop a new course of action appropriate to the present context.
Balancing the benefits and limiting tendencies of organizational gravity comes down to maintaining clarity of purpose and approaching every task, every project, and every day as an opportunity to plan well.
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