AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Program Fatigue

Copyright 2001 AXIS Performance Advisors.

Program Fatigue

Why people dread new corporate initiatives and what to do about it

by Darcy Hitchcock

Man rolling eyesWe’ve all heard the veiled criticism: “program of the month,””management by magazine.” Employees in organizations are weary of all the initiatives which have come and gone. This jadedness makes it even more difficult to get them to commit to something new, no matter how necessary. What’s going on here and what can an organization do to ready the ground for change?

Our Snapshot Culture

I can’t speak for other cultures, but in the United States, we have an”event” focus. This is probably best recognized in the media.A natural disaster, an election, or a murder all draw attention. Talk showsinvite people to speak because their book was just released, as if theyhad nothing of value to contribute before the book was published. But thereis little understanding of or attention to the underlying causes and ripplesthese events set into motion. It is as if our brains are cameras insteadof video camcorders. We only see the snapshot, not the whole story. Whathappened to precipitate the event and what happens as a result of it areout of focus, if seen at all.

The same phenomenon can be seen in organizations. Total quality management(TQM), reengineering, and self-directed work teams are all seen as discreteprograms or events that came and went. Click goes the shutter. People whowere in the workplace in the 1950’s-60’s may remember employee involvement,participative management, and quality of worklife teams. Click, click, click.So when the focus turns away from a particular initiative, say total qualitymanagement, many employees think that the effort failed. When it’s timeto move onto something new, “Here comes another one,” they moan,rolling their eyes. “BOHICA.” (If you’re not familiar with thisacronym, ask your employees; I don’t care to explain it.)

The most troubling effect of this snapshot culture is how it disempowersand numbs us. News clips of starving people or wars do not inform us ofhow we can help solve the problem or avoid a similar fate. In organizations,blindness to the relationships between initiatives leaves people feelingout of control, done-to, with no way to transfer learning, competencies,or personal identity from one to the next. In the absence of any sense ofcontrol, we eventually turn off, closing our minds and hearts.

See the movie instead

What a video camera would show is the relationships between these efforts.The fact that we don’t much talk about TQM anymore is actually proof ofit’s success! My family used to assume when we took in our Buick for repairsthat it would come back with the same problem plus a couple more. My fatheronce drove home a new car that had none of the lug nuts tight! Many companiesused not to care much what their customers wanted (Ford’s comment about”any color as long as it’s black”). Rework and waste were justhow business was done. All these things are unthinkable now. Cars come with100,000 mile warranties, most companies routinely survey customers, andsome manufacturers are achieving zero waste to landfill. The same transformationis true for teams, empowerment, and self-direction. You’d have to be hard-pressednowadays to find a manager who thinks it’s okay to be autocratic, focusingon kicking butt and taking names. They know they have to involve peopleto gain their insights and commitment.

Remember the four stages of learning:

  • unconscious incompetence ­ where you don’t even know you don’t
  • conscious incompetence ­ you know what you don’t know
  • conscious competence ­ you still have to think about it to do it
  • unconscious competence ­ it’s now a habit, automatic

    Organizations also go through these same stages. A program becomes a
    “program” at the second stage, when an organization discovers
    there’s something it doesn’t know that it needs to learn, and the program
    holds your hand through the third. By the fourth stage, unconscious competence,
    you don’t need the crutch of a program and you’re on to the next initiative.
    We don’t hear much emphasis on empowerment and TQM any more because they
    are now habits. They aren’t passé; they’re now integrated into our
    daily life.

    Avoiding Program-of-the-Month Complaints

    How can you help employees see the connections, see the whole movie insteadof just disjointed snapshots? We have a couple suggestions.

    First, tell a good story. I am convinced that the human brainis wired for stories. Someone can tell you a little of the plot and suddenlyyou remember the whole novel. Stories draw people in, allowing them to identifythemselves with the characters and learn vicariously. We remember and retellthem, even embellish them. So approach your next change effort as a novelistwould. Who is the protagonist and antagonist? What is the conflict? Whatis the setting and plot? What will make the employees eager to see whathappens in the next chapter? What is the life lesson the characters mustlearn to transcend the challenges? What makes the journey worth taking?How might the novel end? Tell stories about others who have tried to followthis same path; not just lifeless case studies of what they did but alsowhat they thought and felt. Think about story archetypes: is your situationthe Odd Couple Merger, David versus Goliath-Microsoft, D-Day assault ona new market, or Apollo 13 After-Disaster?

    Since sustainability involves going where no industrialized man has gone before, it lends itself to epic journey story lines: Lewis and Clark, Exodus, Star Trek, and the Hobbitt.

    Second, make the story a logical sequel. People are in their ownstory now; they’re used to playing certain kinds of roles. So make yourstory easy to step into. Explain how this is a logical extension of yourpast. Be explicit about how this new initiative relates to past programs.What did they learn in the last journey that will help them on this one?What do they value that they can they take with them? Ask what they’d liketo leave behind. The unsavory legacy of reengineering is in part becausethe way it was implemented violated the decades-long trend toward greaterempowerment. So make sure that you are building on your previous foundation,not ripping out the cornerstones of your success.

    If you are implementing sustainability, all the quality tools will help you understand your work processes and help you identify waste. It will also make life cycle assessment less daunting. Your experience with teams and empowerment prepares employees to make viable business proposals and to work with people from across the organization. For example, a local remodeler talks about how their past empowerment and team efforts built an important platform for their current sustainability work, building an expectation that employees should participate in business decisions and have their ideas considered.

    Third, draw a map. As the old saw goes, a picture tells a thousandwords, so some novels put a map or a genealogy chart in the front to helpthe reader make sense of the relationships. So create a picture, a map ofthe journey. Any major initiative usually engages several fronts, oftenrequiring people to learn new terms. I remember a chemical company superintendentspouting in exasperation, “Last week was statisticalprocess control; this week it’s diversity training; next week, we’re doingteams. I thought we were doing total quality management!” While theplant manager had a clear understanding of how all these initiatives dovetailedand sequenced, his direct report obviously did not.

    Your picture may show how the elements relate, the sequence of implementation,and/or the relationship to past initiatives. Without such a picture, yourun the risk of people assuming each of these are a separate program, yieldingcomplaints of program-of-the-day. Common (but trite) visuals include a three-leggedstool, four cornerstones, or five points to a star. Get creative, and usesymbolism that links to your story. A journey metaphor may imply a pathpast key destinations with competencies from your last initiative tuckedin your backpack. Kayaking tributaries which lead into a major river canrepresent separate initiatives coming together to a common end or differentpaths to the same end.

    So if your journey to sustainability is going to involve an emphasis on zero waste, green purchasing and fuel switching, draw a picture to show how all of these things contribute to the goal. The Natural Step framework can be a helpful organizing tool which also has the benefit of being a whole-systems approach.

    Fourth, leave a tease for the next book. Movie makers that expecttheir first movie to spawn sequels leave a tease near the end to set thestage. Remember the embryos left in the mud in first Jurassic Park? Youtoo will need to prepare your audience for the next blockbuster initiative,so openly speculate where this one may be taking your company.

    Might sustainability lead you to switching from a product to service orientation? MacDonalds Sweden reportedly has wondered if there are burgers in their future. What is the purpose of the water bureau when people begin to collect rainwater instead of buying water from pipes?

    Fifth, don’t oversell the book. When I first started writing books,I wanted my novel to be THE novel, saying everything I wanted to say. Well,needless to say, it didn’t even approach that ideal, much less get published!It was much easier to move forward and avoid writers block if I just tolda story, allowing myself to write other stories later. Organizations canalso get a form of writers block, where they can’t move forward unless theeffort is perfect. Embarrassed and frustrated that they aren’t reachingthe ideal (e.g., sustainable performance), some employees throw up theirhands. So be explicit about what your new program will and won’t do. Donot leave people with the impression that this will solve all your problems,guarantee financial success, preserve all jobs, etc. This is just your currentstory and the end is not predetermined. You will still need to manage theeffort, balance stakeholder needs, and bring the rest of the world along.


    Despite employee cynicism, change isn’t going to stop. Initiatives will necessarily come and go. But if you help your employees understand the plotline, they are more likely to look forward to the next sequel. If your organizationdoesn’t manage change well, it will become increasingly resistant to change,putting your organization at a competitive disadvantage. Adaptability iskey to survival.


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This entry was posted on July 31, 2013 by in Articles/Posts and tagged , .

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