During the summer of 1963 my life was changed forever. The late Colleen
Berg, our neighbor and mother of my best friend Tom, introduced me to
my first slice of homemade, pepperoni, mushroom and onion pizza. The reason
the event is so vividly etched in my memory is it doubled my food group
horizon from primarily hamburgers to hamburgers and pizza. At the time,
I might have been considered a finicky eater. Colleen, however, was the
type of mother that didn’t take no for an answer (if you know what
I mean). Therefore, given the limited options, I decided it was in my
best interest to give it a try. The rest as they say is history. The thing
I’ve come to really enjoy about pizza is the limitless amount of
stuff you can throw on top and create a whole new experience. Don’t
get me wrong. I’m still not going to have anchovies or too many
vegetables on my pizza. But over the years I’ve ventured quite a
ways from that first pepperoni pizza.
My blog is about another significant, personal experiment. It involves
a small, underperforming operating company within a much larger organization.
Serendipity provided the opportunity to create an organizational pizza
from a variety of ingredients. The toppings were as follows:
- Leadership based upon complexity science by Margaret Wheatley
- High level, intrinsic motivational practices from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Tools to help people deal with change from the inside out by Bob Moawad
- Breaking the status quo rules by Marcus Buckingham
The pizza base was a low-morale, underperforming, disengaged work group.
Customers were unhappy. Results were deteriorating from bad to worse.
At the time, other organizations within the larger organization were mandated
to utilize this operating entity. The serendipitous opportunity presented
was this organization reported to me in my new role at the parent organization.
There were a number of other priorities more demanding of my time than
worrying about fixing this situation. The internal customers were loudly
voicing their willingness to seek similar services externally so “repairing”
the entity wasn’t a do or die situation. Given the limited downside,
my journey into the unknown of organizational pizza making was launched.
My goal was to take learnings from the aforementioned authors and integrate
them in a business.
First, a leader willing to participate in this grand experiment needed
to be found. As fate would have it, she was already part of the organization
and was a long-term associate that knew all the history. I shared my vision,
books, articles and other materials I’d accumulated from seminars
and classes. We discussed concepts of “flow,” “intrinsic
vs. extrinsic motivation,” “how mental models hold people
captive,” “how people can change internally through affirmative
reminder rehearsal,” “what non-hierarchical work environments
look and feel like,” and “what having fun in the workplace
means.” In hindsight, I probably believed the excitement of the
journey convinced this person to become the leader. The reality was she
knew if we failed, the business would close and people would lose their
jobs. Thankfully, she accepted the position.
To complicate matters, the growing customer dissatisfaction was so intense
it became necessary to eliminate the mandate to continue to use the service
and allow the use of outside vendors. The bad news was this created a
mass exodus of customers. The good news was there was no debating that
the need for change was real.
How we started. Consider this the tomato sauce. Increasing Human Effectiveness
(IHE) was a two day seminar I had attended over ten years earlier. The
late Bob Moawad was a former high school basketball coach turned “edutainer,”
and he developed the course, for the purpose of helping people deal with
change, becoming personally accountable and achieving high performance.
The foundation of the course was how behaviors and habits are created
by mental models that hold us captive. As a facilitator for the material,
I was able to share the information through a video assisted program.
My commitment was to present the material to all associates. This served
two purposes: a) demonstrated I was engaged and supported the journey
we were launching; b) everyone was being given a tool-kit to help them
successfully make the journey. There would be no penalties for slow learners
only for those unwilling to participate. This material became the “bridge”
from where we were as a group to where we wanted to be. The plan was that
everyone would eventually get across the bridge. After all associates
had been through the seminar and had a working knowledge of the material,
we moved on to phase two.
Next we added the mozzarella. In 1999, The Gallup Organization published
a book, First, Break All the Rules, the authors, Marcus Buckingham and
Curt Coffman, shared “twelve questions” which were correlated
to high performing workplaces. We divided the organization into twelve
groups and gave each group a question to discuss, debate, dispute, and
ultimately create their version of the question which would ultimately
become part of our future vision. After several grueling weeks of meetings,
the group was able to synthesize the questions and make them culturally
adaptable to the current environment. Voting tools were then used to let
each person rate the current environment as to each question. This was
done in group settings with real time results shown on an overhead screen.
Individual groups defended their questions. Arguments and debates broke
out. Anyone witnessing these sessions would have certainly thought chaos
was our goal and we were achieving it at a superior level. Not to anyone’s
surprise we now knew the magnitude of the challenge to change the culture
and improve performance to excellent. Through the process, everyone also
learned it was ok to speak your mind and defend your point of view. We
were creating a safe environment for disagreement and debate. The old
culture was beginning to be dismantled slowly, but surely.
The importance of culture in organizational performance has received a
great deal of attention over the last 20 years. Researchers have spent
many hours investigating and documenting the impact culture has on organizations
sustaining success. Because an organization’s culture is the cumulative
impact of peoples’ behaviors within that environment, marrying high-performing
individual tools along with high-performing organizational tools seemed
to be a formula for radical success.
This process put tremendous pressure on the leader and her cadre of middle
managers. I warned them at times it would probably feel like anarchy but
to resist the need to intervene unless people were being personally attacked.
I also alerted them that coaching and leadership were going to be in high
demand. Resist the need to “control” the situation. One of
my favorite quotes from the IHE seminar was: “We are born to win
and conditioned to lose.” Many of the behaviors being exhibited
were conditioned over time, and we would need to use the IHE tools to
displace the existing behaviors with new behaviors in alignment with our
goals. We were in the midst of changing an environment of mediocrity to
one of excellence. Growth was going to be painful at times. In the movie,
A League of their Own, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks character) says: “If
it weren’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it
great.” I wore this quote out over the months of our journey. We
were all learning to be more trusting as we went along.
Slowly but steadily the scores on the team’s “Gallup”
questions began to rise. The group meetings became less contentious and
more productive in resolving challenges. Each group “owned”
their assigned question and took pride in seeing the scores improve. We
were becoming very close to a self-organizing and adaptive organization.
Attitudes were improving. Groups were developing new initiatives. A sign
things were improving was when a couple of customers that had left decided
to come back and give us another chance. This increased everyone’s
self-confidence. People were now becoming committed to the journey not
just complying with the rules.
The final toppings were from Csikszentmihalyi and Wheatley. Csikszentmihalyi,
a college professor of psychology, wrote a book, Flow: The Psychology
of Optimal Experience, describing the following eight conditions contributing
to “flow”: goals are clear, feedback is immediate, balance
between opportunity and capacity, concentration deepens, the present is
what matters, control is no problem, sense of time is altered and the
loss of ego. There seemed to be a connection between Wheatley’s
thoughts about organizations’ ability to self-organize and Csikszentmihalyi’s
views on individuals being in a state of “flow.” If the right
people are in the right positions, if bureaucracy and hierarchy are unnecessary
and the conditions for creating flow are present, I was convinced we’d
see success like none of us had ever experienced. Creating an adaptive,
self-organizing environment is tremendously challenging for leaders to
sustain. Because most people have never been exposed to this type of organizational
environment, they aren’t very adept at working in one. Their organizational
culture becomes exceedingly important, and outsiders unfamiliar with such
an environment will want to disrupt it in all likelihood to be something
with which they are more comfortable and familiar. Feedback provides individuals
with immediate information that enables them to know if what they are
doing is the right thing. Developing real-time feedback systems is critical
to success. By combining feedback with extreme clarity and simplicity
on the performance objectives, people will excel.
I was mostly a cheerleader and bystander during the evolution of this journey.
This organization became the best, highest performing entity I’ve
ever been associated by any measurement, customer satisfaction, associate
satisfaction or financial performance. The credit for the transformation
that was achieved goes to the leaders and the associates that chose to
make the trip through all the nuances previously discussed. A key tenet
of the IHE program is for every individual to be aware of the vast amount
of untapped potential that resides in all of us. Understanding how structures
and hierarchy limit people from pursuing their potential is a primary
obstacle to creating high performing organizations. Passion and commitment
aren’t created by legislation and without them excellence is impossible
We all have opportunities to create great pizza. If you work with young
people in any way, remember you are conditioning them by what you do or
say. Psychologists are providing more and more understanding about how
our brains influence what and how we do things. If you are one that thinks
this is new age-nonsense, then here’s my challenge. Much of what
influences how organizations are structured and managed today is tangentially
traceable back to a theory of management developed by Frederick Taylor
in the early 1900’s. Eliminate everything in your business world
invented after this time period and see what’s left. Just because
something is intangible doesn’t make it any less relevant. Associate
surveys continue to report extraordinary numbers of disengaged workers
and yet there’s a growing body of knowledge about how to fix it.
The ingredients are available. Make a better pizza.