Wednesday, January 25, 2012

You Don't Really Serve Your Customers At All

Golfers at Shoreline Golf Course

Most important decisions are made informally as a result of conversations between influencers. They're the ones you should keep in mind before you do anything with respect to your career.

If you don't read anything else in this post, remember that. 

Core Group Theory: Who Needs It?

Right now I am reading Who Really Matters, by Art Kleiner*. It's hard to believe that 2003, the book's publication year, is almost a decade ago because the content is extremely relevant today.

This well-researched work talks about what really makes organizations tick and how you can use that to your advantage. (If you like the work of Edgar Schein, Peter Senge, Peter Block, Elliott Jacques or Chris Argyris you will definitely want to read it.) It's useful if you want to:
  • Get a job, advance in your job, or understand why you can't advance at work
  • Help an organization get past its dysfunctional behavior and achieve transformational change
  • Market your product or service to a particular organization or target audience
  • Influence the policies of an organization or group of organizations
  • Further your academic understanding of the underlying principles of organizational behavior
It's Sort of Like "WWJD"

The basic idea is very simple: All organizations serve their "core group" of influencers first and foremost. It's sort of like the saying "What Would Jesus Do?" Except that the question goes more like this:

"What Would (Influencer Names) Want?"

This is all bound together into "Core Group Theory" - a fancy way of saying that everything an organization does boils down to serving a few people that people go to great lengths to serve. Or we serve our imaginary version of those people - "we carry our bosses in our heads." (p. 51)

Core Group Theory explains why organizations usually fail at their stated purpose - to serve the customer, public, shareholder.

It's not that organizations are "bad." Nor are the people in them incompetent.

Blaming the Bureaucrats: A Great Example

Kleiner goes out of his way to point this out with respect to government, citing research by James Q. Wilson published in the book Bureaucracy (quotes are by Kleiner):
  • "If great government agencies are rare in the U.S., it's not because government people lack dedication or intelligence." 
  • Rather, the problem has to do with lacking a "leadership team (empowered) to take charge of an operation and make it work." (p. 165)
When you combine an empowered leadership team with a clear mission (or "influence mandate" - my term) you have the building blocks of success because then you can hire people, provide them with a goal, and let them reach it.

Can A Higher Purpose Exist In Organizations?

From Kleiner's perspective, the mission doesn't have to be meaningful on a spiritual level (e.g. in Margin Call, the main character happily leaves rocket science for the financial rewards of Wall Street) but if it's clear, and there is someone in charge, people can effectively achieve it.

Of course, if the mission is both clear and meaningful and the Core Group is mentally and behaviorally dedicated to it, then you have the makings of a world-class brand. Because then you have aligned people's desire to be part of something more, higher and better with their practical need to put food on the table and their dependence on leadership to tell them what to do so as to make that happen.
 
Branding, "Personal Branding" and Core Group Theory

Kleiner doesn't talk much about branding in the sense of how an organization can use it to succeed. His focus is on the individual and how to survive given the fact that Core Groups are real and routinely hurt the careers of qualified people.

So when he does mention personal branding (pp. 61-62) it is to offer an alternative to the Tom Peters "Brand Called You" strategy - befriending the Core Group for mutual self-interest rather than promoting yourself shamelessly to its exclusion.

Core Group Theory and Human Nature

In fact, Kleiner doesn't think much of Core Groups at all. To him they are inherently self-serving.
  • In the opening section of the book he talks about a devoted employee slighted thoughtlessly by a Core Group member, whose career at the organization is gradually destroyed despite his valuable hard work. 
  • He cites a study by William Whyte (of Organization Man fame) showing that despite seemingly objective studies, inevitably corporations tended to relocate their headquarters amazingly close to the home of the CEO: "average distance...was eight miles." (p. 38)
I recognize that I am stubbornly idealistic, but my perspective is more like the one expressed by Anne Frank. Her beautiful optimism in the face of sheer hatred may have been a survival tactic but it continues to humble me:
"I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." - Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
This is a whole other conversation, but the fact that Kleiner even wrote his book; the vitality of social media, which has no real purpose other than to give; the fact that people give away their lives to feed their families, run into burning buildings, take responsibility for the lives of millions - it can't all be greed and ego.

So I do think that Core Groups can be selfless, at least for a time, and value contributions by their team members above the personal egos of those in charge. And these are the groups that inspire genuine commitment from their followers, and that therefore have the greatest value and stand the greatest chance of long-term success: because they are truly functional.

Adapting to Reality

Yet even if a Core Group is ideal for awhile, because people are people, even those can't last forever.  So most people will find themselves at one point or another with a conflict between the mission and the influence wielded by whoever has legitimacy among the workforce.

(Note: I realize that this blog has a classist bias toward the elite knowledge worker who has choices and is not functionally or actually enslaved).

The conflict is essentially psychological in nature:
  • On the one hand we feel pressure to serve the mission: Consciously we come to work looking for meaning, not just a paycheck, because serving a higher purpose makes us happy. If we can't find meaning, at least we want to add value in a way that seems objective and justifiable. So we try to do "objectively valuable work" in the service of "the customer."
  • On the other hand we feel pressure to serve the influencer: But somehow we end up breathlessly trying to find new and inventive ways to serve the often-irrational demands of people we don't even personally know, whose wants and mandates we may not even fully understand. Bias toward survival.
If there is a clash between the mission and the influencer, how do we psychologically adapt and behaviorally survive? I did not see it in the text but would understand from the theory that we tend to choose from among the following:
  • Unquestioning and passionately committed allegiance to influencer group: The benefit of this is that you are seen as committed. The downside is that you'll do things that don't make sense or are even illegal if it means taking care of the boss. 

  • Conflicted but committed service to influencer group vs. mission: Tell ourselves we're committed to the mission, but unconsciously serve the influencer group first, try to work mission priorities in, and when that doesn't work, rationalize that the influencers know what they're doing. The benefit of this is that influencers see you as having integrity. The downside is that they don't fully trust you.

  • "Give me liberty or give me death" approach: Focus on the mission and more or less ignore the influencers. The benefit of this is that you're seen as functionally valuable. The downside is that you're furthest from the "circle of trust" and therefore most expendable in a pinch, unless you truly have skills that nobody else does.
All of this sounds so bleak - like you can't really win. While it's understandable why someone would adopt a mission focus, what are the psychological rewards of being a brown-noser? Or, in Kleiner's words, "If commitment and legitimacy are so important....Why do we legitimize bosses who don't really deserve legitimacy?" (p. 49) Three reasons:
  • We need the money: "We tend to do what we think we're supposed to do, because....We believe our jobs, incentives, and rewards depend on it."
  • Our brains prefer simplicity: "It is terribly hard to make all the decisions. Most of the time, most of us would rather just act in favor of those who have legitimacy in our minds, even if we feel antagonistic to them." (Which is why I continue using Microsoft Word, an annoying word processor I detest, even though I have alternatives.)
  • There is the possibility of becoming one of them: It feels blissfully good to be part of the inner sanctum, in which the organization "is chivalrous toward you and dismissive of all others." (p. 37)
A Healthier Way to Survive

I don't want to spoil the experience of reading the book and gaining from the tons of wisdom, research and valuable advice there. So here are just a few key points from the book that may be helpful. All of them apply no matter what your interest in career growth and organizational functioning is:
  • Organizations are not necessarily "bad": You may read this and instinctively decide (or reinforce your innate belief that) "Hell is other people." However, especially in a social media world, that's probably not going to work. So Kleiner urges win-win coexistence ("be friends" on "equal footing" (p. 62). See Chapter 16.
  • Ignorance may feel good but failure feels bad and is costly: If you don't understand the way organizations really work, including who the influencers are, what they want, and what constitutes an unforgivable offense to them (whether or not it is written anywhere), you are at risk and your efforts to function effectively within them will likely fail.
  • Don't walk into the boxing ring untrained: This should go without saying but I'll repeat it just in case, especially since Kleiner makes the point: Core Groups can be dangerous. So don't do dumb things like try to verbally attack, gossip about, insult, or "start a revolution" (on the aggressive side) or "put yourself down" or submerge your efforts (on the self-punishing side). (pp. 190-101) Chapter 23 has some suggestions that seem like they might be more effective.
All in all, this is one of those books that I plan to read very slowly in the hopes of absorbing as much of it as possible. What's nice also is that it has a number of simple exercises and tools you can use to help yourself using the principles of Core Group theory.

If you read this book and experiment with the theory, please let me know how it goes. And if you are an influencer or eventually join some sort of Core Group, I hope you'll remember the power of your microphone, and use it wisely and and well.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!
____

* I learned about this book via a post by Steve Davies mentioning another book, The Age of Heretics, also by Art Kleiner.

Photo by Don DeBold via Flickr. I was not asked or paid to read or endorse this book, and as always, all opinions are of course my own and do not imply endorsement by any organization. Originally posted to my blog, Think Brand First by Dannielle Blumenthal, at www.dannielleblumenthal.com. Permission is granted to repost with attribution.
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