Subpage Banner Image



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 to achieve.

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.