An Organization Myth: Three Managers and a Work Plan by Doug Chapman

In this tale, how the job was done is just as important as what was done.

Once upon a time, there was an organization. It was a big organization. Many people worked there. The executives of this organization were smart. They read books, attended conferences, and listened closely to wise consultants. And they had their own good ideas, too.

The gurus told them of the future. A future of more profits and more success — if they would only manage work and people more wisely. The words were consistent. “Your people are your biggest asset.” And the executives believed.

Gurus were asked to help, at great expense. They interviewed the executives. A “Mission Statement” was drafted. “Strategic Goals” were established. “Value” statements were created, framed and hung on walls throughout the big organization. These statements described the importance of “Customer Focus,” “Employee Development,” and “Shareholder Value.” Managers and employees in the big organization were asked to believe, and to help.

But the executives had questions. Their questions demonstrated great wisdom. “How can we engage our people to help us grow profitably, year after year?” they asked.

From the mountaintop they heard the answer from the gurus. The answer was clear and consistent. It echoed through the valleys below. The answer was, “Develop work plans that hold people accountable,” and, “Recognize and reward people for the achievement of their work plans…” And the executives believed.

Much time, effort and expense was spent developing and implementing the “work plan” concept. Gurus were brought down from the mountaintop. They created information packages around the new “work plan” initiatives. Management was trained. Employees were educated. They learned why “work plans” were important. They understood how “work plan” achievements would be recognized and rewarded. And everyone believed.

Time went on. “Work plans” became part of the big organization’s culture. It was different, and it helped focus what work was getting done. True to their word, the executives recognized and rewarded people who achieved their work plans. The process seemed to be working. Productivity and profitability improved, for a while. Then it slowed down.

The executives became concerned. Employee morale sank. Staff turnover rose. The executives turned to the gurus with more questions. “What is happening?” they asked. And the gurus came down from the mountaintop again. They conducted compensation surveys. They consulted with other gurus. They interviewed management personnel and employees. They offered their answers. “Retaining staff is an industry wide problem … you need to re-structure … you need to pay more money for some people because of their ‘in-demand’ skills.” The executives believed, and they acted.

Morale did not greatly improve. Turnover was still too high. Frustration and confusion reigned. “We need more and better measures of what is going on,” said the executives. More gurus were brought in to help. More money was spent. Employee attitude surveys were conducted. Gurus analyzed the results. Recommendations were made and implemented. They coached, and they trained. Still, things were not good at the big organization.

During this time there were three managers. They knew each other by reputation only. All three were effective managers, and all believed in the “work plan.” But they did their jobs quite differently.

One manager, Sam, was politically astute. He made sure that his work plan was achieved every year. He made sure that the work plans of his subordinates were achieved, too. Sometimes it was necessary to discipline people for not achieving their work plan. Sometimes he even let good employees go when they “under performed.” This made him feel bad for a while. So, he learned how to make a work plan just a little less challenging to ensure its successful achievement.

Sam spent time getting to know and be known by senior management. Life was good. His team looked good. They achieved their work plans, and they were rewarded well.

The second manager, Sally, was intensely focused on work plans. Her work plans were very challenging. She made sure that her work plan was achieved every year, at any cost. Sally made sure that the aggressive work plans of her subordinates were achieved, too. She encouraged them to do so at any cost. Sometimes she needed to coach other people on how to build and manage effective work plans.

Sally and her team were very well recognized and rewarded by the executive. Life was very good. Sally got promotions and bigger management responsibilities. She didn’t stay very long in any particular job. Her staff did very well too. They spread out and moved up in the big organization, and Sally’s style was cloned — because that was a successful style.

The third manager, Sue, was smart too. But her style was quite different than Sam’s or Sally’s. Sue knew work plans were important to measure what got done. But for her, it was just as important to recognize how the job got done. She believed in the mission statement. She believed in the strategic goals. And, she believed the values that hung on the walls throughout the big organization. She held her employees accountable for believing them, too.

Sue also developed and evaluated job descriptions with these values in mind. She believed in hiring and promoting with experience and skills and with demonstrated abilities that related to the goals and values of the organization. She managed people according to their assigned work plan and the behaviours they demonstrated on the job. Sue sponsored training opportunities for her staff–but only if the training was job specific and relevant to values and goals. Sue also asked others to participate in performance appraisals, both from inside and outside the organization. For both her, and her staff.

Sue wanted to make sure that in everything she did, sincere respect was consistently demonstrated. Towards the big organization, her boss, her peers, her customers and her staff. Sue recognized that lasting and true change towards productivity and profitability did not have a time line. And, that it would not be driven by the “work plan” alone.

Well, Sue attracted and retained staff better than any other managers. In fact, people asked to work for her. She had staff who were motivated by their work. They believed in her leadership, because she had first demonstrated belief in them. Sue showed fairness, appreciation, respect and recognition for the things that didn’t always show up in an employee’s work plan. That was unusual. Sue proved that there was truth in the saying that money is not the only reason that people stay with an organization.

Some days, it was hard for Sue to keep true to her convictions about what was really important. It was particularly hard on those days when Sam and Sally had a very high profile with the executives. But she knew she was right, and she stayed the course.

Over time, it was recognized that reward and recognition programs based on achieving the work plan only had mixed results. Sometimes people from Sam’s group, who completed less-than-challenging work plans, were promoted. This started to show up in less-than-impressive financial results. Someone asked, “Who is ensuring that all work plans, across all organizational areas, are appropriate for the skill and pay level of all employees?” There was no answer to the question. Then a better question was asked, “Who is interested in trying to do that job successfully?” There was no response to that question, either.

Over time, it was also noticed that sometimes people were promoted because they completed work plans at any cost. The executives had begun to recognize the Values and Goals on the walls didn’t matter. It seemed that being “just like Sally” was what really counted.

The executives took the time to find out what Sue was doing. They decided that respect, integrity and values towards employees, as well as customers, was critical to long term productivity and profitability.

So the gurus were sent away. Executives and managers drew on their own knowledge and management skill. They looked at not only how they were managing work plans, but also how they were managing people.

They built the organization’s values into every human resource management activity. They included values in how jobs were described and paid. They included values in the recruiting process. They ensured that Values were a big part of the reason why people got promoted. They recognized and rewarded managers for demonstrating values in their management style. They managed employee performance according to both the skills and the values demonstrated on the job. They asked their customers to participate in performance feedback. They trained employees whenever “gaps” between expectations and performance were noticed.

And the management noticed. And the employees noticed. And the customers noticed. Productivity and profitability returned. And they returned to stay. And the big organization became known far and wide as a great place to work. And that how the job was done was just as important as what was done.

Doug Chapman is President of enCompassing Visions in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.