First This, Then That: Why Your Association’s Team May Not Be Working to Its Full Potential

By Alan Ward, BSW, MBA. Senior Associate - Organizational Performance

As leaders and contributors, we want to make things happen.  We need to make things happen.  On our watch revenues should be ramping, membership should be growing, and our organization’s influence should be expanding.  We develop strategy, equip the ship, and set sail.  And things go well… until perhaps they don’t. 

Then, it seems, we have more questions than answers: Why are we not making progress? Why am I dealing with this issue again?  At first, we tend to rely on what we know. We try harder and work longer.  Maybe we complain more often.   Different questions arise:  I have good people, why are they not delivering?  What is wrong with them?  Ultimately, it can turn to self doubt --- What am I doing wrong? 

I read a great book recently about woodcarving.  In it, a superbly talented craftsman shares the frustrations he feels when things simply won’t translate from his vision through his hands to the wood.  Experience has taught him that in these moments it is not his technique or capability that is a problem; it is his design.   I nearly jumped out of my seat when I read this.  Rarely has learning been so succinctly captured.

Within organizations, we usually have the skills, or we can direct our attention to get them.  What can hinder our progress is not poor technique, then, but that our structure – our design – may be faulty.  Organization structure is a funny thing.  We believe we have it nailed and at some point we probably did.  However, structure doesn’t typically evolve as organically or as quickly as the business environment or our members’ or customers’ needs.  It can become rooted.  Instead of being a well-spring of all that we need,  it can become a constraint to all that we have to do.  It lags our experience.

We start by doing things that are right and necessary.  Sometimes we don’t stop doing them when their utility has passed.  Quality contributors become locked into work that is necessary (maybe) but not critical.  Our best people are not focused upon our most important work.  Internal processes that serve greatness over time – relevant learning and development, and insightful people planning – are sacrificed to what seems more urgent.  We forget that organizational outputs are intrinsically connected to organizational inputs.  We hope that results are self-sustaining and are surprised when we realize that they are not.  We jump to conclusions.

Is there an antidote?  I suggest that it comes down to remembering what we have always known:  the truth in the principle of ‘first this, then that’.   Einstein once said that if he had 20 days to solve a problem,  he would spend 19 of those days defining it.  There is a parallel with organizational performance. 

If you are going to produce something great, be sure you are ready…. with the right people doing the right work at the right time.  Think through how things have changed since you last took stock of your design and how the environment around your organization has changed.  Then take action.  Repeat as required.   

Taking the time to evaluate your organizational structure and processes – your design -- is not time wasted, nor is it a placeholder for something more important.  It aligns resources and enables achievement.   It is smart leadership.

© Copyright The Portage Group. 2014.