Three Principles for Changing “the Right” Organizational Performance Issue

By: Jeff Chan

Recently, I was working with a research and development team at a large packaging company that had fallen on challenging times. At one time, the team was thriving and developing breakthrough product after product. They were the original developers of an innovative packaging product, but in recent years struggled to develop new and break-through offers.

The team leader wanted to address this performance issue by restructuring the R&D organization. He felt that by restructuring the team they would be able to innovate and come up with new ideas. In addition to restructuring, he wanted to train the team on the latest skills and tools in innovation. While these are all good things, they wouldn’t solve the core problem causing these issues.

In one of the first visits to their main facility I entered through the employee entrance. At the security desk was a wall of license plate photographs – there must have been more than a few dozen on this wall. I asked the security guard why they had all these pictures of license plates. He said that they recently implemented a new policy at their facility because they found it safer for cars to back into their parking places rather than going in headfirst. The security guard was instructed to go around the parking lot (that had over 500 cars) and take pictures of the cars that did not back into their parking spot. They wanted to identify and shame the people that did not follow their new policy.

As I spoke with employees on the R&D team, they shared with me example after example of rules, policies, procedures, and measures that inhibited them from developing new ideas and products. Often, when they did not follow the rules and policies they were “shamed” into following them. This culture of following processes, rules, and measures focused on productivity, efficiency, and safety rather than new ideas and innovation.

Leaders trying to improve performance will often change elements of their organization and turn to tangible things such as organizational restructure, training, or new technology to solve their problems. These are all valid and good things, but many times structure, skills, or tools are not the cause of their performance problems. Identification of the root cause issue is a critical step to ensuring successful organizational change and performance improvement.

To ensure you’re addressing the right organizational performance issue, follow these three principles.

1. Begin with the End in Mind

Stephen Covey in his famous book 7 Habits for Highly Effective People encouraged individuals to start with a picture of success and work backwards to identify what people need to do now to achieve that success. This principle also applies to organizational change and performance improvement. Too often leaders become enamored with the latest fads and trends and lose sight of the goals and outcomes of the organization. Focus first on the goals and outcomes and evaluate what needs to change to achieve this end.

2. Gather Input and Perspective

An ancient parable tells the story of six blind men walking down a street. They happen upon an elephant and all six men were touching different parts of the elephant trying to identify the creature. The first man said it was a spear because he was holding the tusk, the second man said it was a snake because he was holding the trunk, and the third man said it was a fan because he was holding the ear. They began to argue and debate trying to identify the creature. The moral of the story is that they were all right, but they were also all wrong because they were limited by their own experiences and perspectives. In order to identify the “whole,” or elephant, they needed to talk with each other to understand rather than to simply advocate that their own position was correct.

This principle applies to organizational change. Gathering input from managers and employees is critical to fully understanding the performance issue and root cause problem. Gathering perspectives on the issues will not only help you properly diagnose what needs to change, it will help to build the support from the employees that their voices are heard, and opinions are valued.

3. Identify What is Out of Alignment

I have six children and have taught four of them to drive in our family’s Chevy Suburban. Inevitably, in learning to drive this large car they have hit curbs, potholes, and bumps that have caused the wheels to get out of alignment. When the wheels are out of alignment, the car does not go straight down the road but veers to one side or the other. In addition, the gas mileage goes down because the engine works harder to move the car down the road.

Similarly, organizations have their own “wheels” – structure, processes, procedures, measures, tools, etc. The strategy and goals of the organization are the steering wheel that tells the organization what direction to go. If the organizational “wheels” are not aligned to the strategy and goals, the organization veers away from its intended destination. To ensure your organization is heading straight to its goals, assess the alignment of the organization’s structure, processes, measures. Do these elements support and enable the team to achieve the goals in the most efficient and effective means? What is getting in their way and how does it cause them to veer away from the goal?

As a leader, improving organizational performance is one of the most challenging tasks. The first step is to ensure you have accurately diagnosed the root cause issue that is inhibiting your team from performing at a high level. Download the Change Checklist to help you set the foundation for a successful change initiative.

Download the Checklist


Jeff specializes in working with companies to improve organizational performance and productivity through expertise in change management and business transformation. He has held general management and senior human resource positions with BP/Amoco, Hewitt, Sears, Spiegel, and for the past 10 years has been the President of Chan Management Consulting.