Culture Chat

And other musings on humanizing the workplace
Having the Right Answer Is Not Enough

Having the Right Answer Is Not Enough

January 16, 2017
Jamie Notter

No matter what kind of job you have, I’ll bet that a large percentage of your work day is devoted to one, single activity:

Devising an answer or a solution to a problem you face.

That’s what we do. We come up with answers. We figure out how we are going to sell more widgets, or design better widgets, or partner with others in the widget industry, or create a better performance review system, or train our managers to deal with Millennials more effectively, or break down our internal silos, etc. All problems in search of answers.

So we get to work, and as we seek answers to our problems, we typically look for best practices. We look for answers that make sense to us, to our consultants, to our bosses, to our peers, and in the end we devise some pretty good looking answers to all these problems. And you’d think we could all pat ourselves on the back for all this hard work coming up with answers, but I have to be honest and say that the results we get implementing these answers are frequently underwhelming. What’s that all about? How is it possible that all these fine-looking answers fail to deliver the results we want?

The answer is going to frustrate you: THERE ARE NO BEST PRACTICES. I made this claim more than five years ago in Humanize, and I stand by it even more fervently today. We get so wrapped up in devising beautiful answers to the problems we face, that we fail to understand that the context we’re in as we solve the problems has a huge impact on defining what is “best.” When you live in Denver, it is absolutely a best practice to drive east if you want to get to Kansas City by car. But if you apply that “best practice” when you live in St. Louis, you will never reach Kansas City (not without involving a boat or a plane, anyway).

Context matters. The answers you design MUST be tailored to your context. In organizations, that means they must be uniquely configured to your culture.

One of our Workplace Genome clients was facing an issue with transparency—the results of their assessment revealed internal frustration with the quantity and quality of information being shared. It would have been easy for them to raise the “best practice” flag and start creating processes for sharing more information, but as they saw the complete picture that the Workplace Genome presented to them, they realized there was a deeper dynamic going on.

Due to situations that were unique to them, their context, and their history, they had developed cultural patterns where they were routinely involving too many people in the decision making process. The problem was not on the “supply” side of information sharing—it was on the “demand” side of people needing information. They found themselves letting their stakeholders down because they were not moving fast enough—and trying to get everyone every last bit of information was contributing to that problem.

So in the end, the “best practice” for this organization was to share LESS information internally. Granted, they had to do some hard work on clarifying who should be involved in what decision, but once they did that, the restrictions on information sharing could become a factor in increasing their results and their speed.

Until you understand your culture at the genetic level, you run the risk of designing beautiful answers to your problems that will continually miss the mark. 

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