New Bottom Line Volume 13.2 – Teams in motion: Engineering grace, management elegance

Monday, May 31, 2004

Companies, government agencies, and NGOs facing the challenges of sustainability — or any significant strategy initiative — encounter two fundamental tasks: setting sufficient goals, and getting those goals accomplished.

Goals are key, of course, and the subject of much debate. (I’ve written before on the challenge of “sufficient goals” and the perils of incrementalism — for example, When the Best Just Isn’t Good Enough, Doing It Right: Business Leadership, Environmental Management… and The Grateful Dead?, and The Trap of Binary Thinking. And we’re currently under contract to develop robust standards and systems — building on the strength of LEED, GRI and the myriad of eco-labeling protocols — for certifying “sustainable businesses.”) I’ll have more to say about both subjects in forthcoming articles.

But I want to focus today on this seemingly mundane but equally critical piece of the puzzle: Once an organization sets sufficient goals, how does it keep its people focused on effectively fulfilling those goals?

Some of the most compelling examples that I’ve encountered come from the transportation industry — though very different ends of the spectrum: the Gossamer Albatross human-powered aircraft, and the Swedish national railroad.

The Gossamer Albatross is a great example of self-organizing systems. Paul MacCready and his team — innovators in aerodynamic design — decided to build the aircraft that would make the first human powered crossing of the English Channel. This required an aircraft of exceptional aerodynamics and extremely light weight –and much has been written about the significant design, engineering and production challenges this entailed.

The way they organized their team was equally fascinating. Managers mapped every step to be taken in design and producing this aircraft. Each morning, the specific tasks for that day would be posted at the entrance to the shop — but without specific assignments. Team members would come in each day, check the list, select and initial the items they wanted to perform, then carry them out. When done, they would sign the task off as complete, and choose the next task. The result: a highly coordinated plan and critical path, with a completely flexible, bottom up selection of who does what. The sequencing, where critical, was determined by managers; where not critical, it was at the discretion of each team member. What an elegant example of planning and spontaneity, of coordination and independence.

The mission was successful. The photos of the transparent plane making its way across the Channel are beautiful. And the management discipline is applicable in many other settings.

For the Gossamer Albatross, the task and goals were purely internal. SJ Rail, the privatized former state railway of Sweden, took a boldly more public approach. As part of its turnaround in the early 1990s, SJ Rail looked deeply at its operations and environmental impacts, and chose to make sustainability a central guide of its future directions — driving innovation and new services, as well as the company’s identity.

Not surprisingly, SJ set out an exceptionally detailed turnaround strategy (some 2000 sub business plans, according to Mapping The Journey: Case Studies in Strategy and Action Toward Sustainable Development) with explicit goals and objectives, and a longer list of the specific accomplishments that would be needed to reach those goals. And in an unusually imaginative move that I’ve seen no one match to this day, SJ Rail went public with its plans. The company distributed a booklet to all employees summarizing 100 key commitments drawn from its business plans, posted these goals at railway stations, and published that list on a double page spread in the national newspapers of Sweden — saying to its employees, its shareholders and the riding public: “Here’s what we are going to do. Watch us, and hold us to account.”

As each goal was achieved, it would be checked off — and an updated ad would be published periodically in the newspapers.

The effect was mesmerizing. People across the entire organization had a clear sense of where it was going — and what they needed to do to help it get there — and were self-motivated as knowledgeable members of a larger effort, independently contributing to the momentum of the team. The riding public felt part of the team too. People would come into station and congratulate a conductor, porter or a train engineer on the goals and what had been accomplished — and that sort of feedback was at least as good a motivator as a formal bonus program.

The 100 point, three-year plan was completed in two and a half years — with “sustainability” as a central innovation driver of a successful business turnaround, and employee engagement as a key asset.

What makes a complex initiative successful? Well, judging by these examples, it might not be the traditional management control systems, financial incentives or the other usual things we think of. It might be clear goals, plans and expectations, that are lucidly presented to capable people, who have the freedom and the resources to enact those plans — providing what Ernest Lowe aptly called “autonomy in a coherent whole.”

(Speaking of financial rewards, do share the wealth, of course — but not as a bribe or a motivational device. Share the wealth because people deserve it.)

Next time: Setting “sufficient” goals — How high the moon?

(c) 2004 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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