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Creating a new workplace.


Creating A New Workplace

What do you want to be when you grow up? How many times did you hate answering that question as a child, yet how many times have you pondered that question recently? For most of us, career options, choices, and challenges increase exponentially as our professional lives mature. For some of us, a nagging displeasure with work begins to consume us. For others, a kind of stoic acceptance numbs the senses and reduces the stirrings. Since we spend more of our adult lives working than doing just about anything else, that work experience should yield a major return on our investment in it. Unhappily, that is not the case for most Americans in the workplace today.

Although we work to earn a living and ultimately a decent retirement or whatever private state of nirvana we envision, why have so many lost the joy of work and the sense of personal worth and fulfillment that prior generations seemed to enjoy?

More and more newspapers report stories of high achievers who give up huge salaries to join the growing segment of America going back to small businesses, or even mom-and-pop operations. Why are stress, burnout, substance abuse, and personal and family neglect (and ensuing guilt and regret) so widespread?

For those who choose to stay in more traditional employment, why is there a decline in productivity? According to the June 1990 issue of Success, the United States is the most technologically advanced nation in the world, yet ranks only fifth in productivity per person.

Many theories abound, among them lost spirituality, changing values, increased competition, few opportunities for decision making, less control over our lives, and dispersed families.

For those of us within the association management community, and I suspect for many other segments of America as well, there is yet another cause that demands our particular attention--the role that "process" plays in our lives.

Devotion to process

There is nothing inherently wrong with process, since it provides the systems necessary to produce an end result. Financial personnel, switchboard operators, and others obviously need process. What worries me is the amount of time and resources allocated to serving process, a devotion that appears to be out of control.

Layers of approval; too many rewrites and reviews for copy that doesn't need it; and too many discussions, meetings, and conference calls with too many people all serve to stifle creativity, protect the incompetent, increase overhead, and maintain the status quo.

To a large extent, we have become victims of our own expertise. We've been taught to write everything down, to be accountable, responsible, and businesslike. We may have overlearned our lessons from the business world of 20 years ago and overcorrected what we perceived to be our flaws.

In so doing, too many association executives also lost the ability to make staff and volunteer work exciting and fulfilling. It is ironic that so many association executives are now suffering from the "Peter Drucker made us do it" fallout, just when Peter Drucker is taking a fresh and admiring look at what we are best equipped to do.

In essence, how we do things is threatening to become more important than what we do or who does them with us.

Bureaucrats have been drowning in process for decades, and associations have been scurrying to catch up. When did we first notice signs of the deadly "process disease" in our operations? It seems to infect us so insidiously that we don't know we have it until the condition is critical. Is there a cure or at least some remedial action available to stop the spread of the disease? Of course.

Association executives will always be expected to understand the hardcore fundamentals of management. Concern for the bottom line is in no imminent danger of evaporating. We will still need to plan the work and work the plan, to be responsible and accountable.

But for those of us who work within older, established organizations--where the policies and procedures manual is many times bigger than the program plan--it may be time to rekindle the spontaneity and enthusiasm that marks start-up organizations.

Changing the workplace

We will need to learn how to motivate staff and volunteers to set and accomplish organizational goals. Structure charts, management hierarchies, independent departments, standing committees, and performance evaluations based on job descriptions just won't cut it anymore.

Repeated surveys have given us this message: There is little job satisfaction, less productivity, and more absenteeism at the base of our hierarchical pyramids. As employees get more opportunity for decision making, creativity, and control of the products they are developing, all that changes.

The prospect of making one's own decisions, seeing a project through from inception to conclusion, and being responsible for the consequences is seductive. People are seeking jobs that focus on outcomes even with the prospect of lower earnings, something that wasn't evident in the 1970s and 1980s, when "making it"--judged by big salaries and impressive titles--was the driving force.

Creating the new workplace--helping staff and volunteers reestablish strong personal commitments to their organizations and capturing their enthusiasm--is the most exciting challenge facing executives today. It's a challenge that I think will be met by time- and task-specific teams that are independent of departmental boundaries.

A team approach

If we wish to see the return of pride and productivity to the workplace at every level of operations, changes in how we operate are inevitable. The new work force--richer in ethnic and generational diversity than America has ever known and with more women in key roles in every profession--will profoundly affect how we operate.

This work force will require us to seek fresh approaches to management and supervision and revised definitions of power. New expectations of employees and the demand for increased productivity can be achieved by working in teams. The new leader will respect and use the ideas and skills of every member of the team and will allow the team to establish its own rules, timetables, and celebratory rituals and to define the task and how it will be accomplished.

Clearly, this brave new world will not come upon us by some quantum leap unless there is a revolution within the American business and not-for-profit communities. That is highly improbable and highly undesirable. But change can come in incremental steps if executives want to make it happen.

We can begin to put in place some small demonstration models for discreet projects, using interdisciplinary teams that shift in composition from project to project. Jobs may have to be redesigned by the people holding them. Departments with rigid boundaries of responsibility will be obsolete.

Reexamining the rules

Supervisors may not ever again "ride herd" on "their" group, because no group will remain fixed. Instead, colleagues will be expected to meet quality and performance levels they set for themselves.

With the continued reduction in middle management positions, supervisors as we know them may be on the way to extinction. Happily, the new breed of manager will find work less frustrating, colleagues more valuable, and resources more expandable.

I am suggesting a reexamination of rules and why we have them. If we are to move from a process-focused modus operandi to an outcome-focused mode, we must begin by demonstrating that it can work. To do that requires trying it. We don't need to wait for our next management audit or a major change in our organizational structure or policies. Each of us has ample opportunity to test this hypothesis within our own areas of responsibility.

A wonderful proving ground can be your next response to an organizational problem. For example, your last membership printout clearly shows that last year's downward slide is continuing. Reenrollments are dropping faster than new members are joining.

Testing the concept

This is usually the time to light a fresh fire under the membership department, convene the membership committee to determine what went wrong, and to mumble about Jane not doing a good job in membership. What it should be is the perfect time to scrap the usual and adopt the team approach.

Use your brilliance to handpick four or five people from different areas of the organization. The team may be made up of a savvy junior editor, a senior program analyst who knows the field, the membership services clerk who is intimately involved in what's happening, a volunteer whose chief interest is government relations, and the president elect.

Their task is clearly spelled out: You want to know why they think the problem exists and how they would correct it. You want them to finish their work within two weeks with a minimum number of meetings and with expectations clearly spelled out. It is crucial that they understand whether their recommendations are advisory or binding. There are no other ground rules.

They will select a team leader, decide how they work, and determine what resources they will need. When their work is completed, they will receive a fair hearing. If there is something in their plan that can be implemented, one or more may be asked to stay on for the next steps.

If it all works, you as the executive will give credit to all who participated and take credit for putting together a great team. If it doesn't, you and they will have learned from the experience at very little cost and with ample time and resources to try again.

Everyone wins

What's in it for the team? An opportunity to step out of their boxes, unleash creative thoughts, make decisions that would make a difference, and interact with fellow staffers and volunteers.

Most of all, a renewed enjoyment of work produces a renewed commitment to the organization. Such interdisciplinary teams, which also cut across rank, allow participants to throw off what psychologists tell us is the "learned helplessness" that strict systems and controlling supervisors encourage.

Attacking a problem with a team drawn from all levels of an association provides another key advantage: Team members return to their own departments or the association board as champions of the new idea, thus dramatically reducing the potential for sabotage and increasing the possibilities of success.

Those who require the comfort of stability and the need for structure and routine will not flourish in such an environment, but I predict that it is the environment of the future. The quicker we learn to embrace this high-energy, high-responsibility mode, the better our associations will fare. We will narrow the gap between expectations and achievement and provide tremendous satisfaction for the participants. After all, isn't that a critical part of our job, too?

Taking the team idea all the way will ultimately eliminate another organizational relic: the committee. This simultaneously revered and hated structure is ready for retirement.

The only shocking thing about it is that despite years of committee jokes and jibes, the committee is still with us. We appoint them, staff them, charge them, and thank them, assuring their longevity. Few committee members love their assignment, few staff people enjoy staffing them, and the amount of output is hardly related to the amount of people hours and dollars spent supporting the habit.

As we move toward more ad hoc structures, such as the team, we will be more comfortable calling them "ad hoc task forces." Using familiar language will make the approach less threatening and acceptance of the methodology easier.

Inaugurating a team approach to one project will show by example what can be done. Creating an environment that allows people to control their work lives is as energizing as process fatigue is debilitating.

As more positive attitudes and results occur, others in the workplace will spontaneously begin to incorporate the philosophy of the team or the ad hoc task force into their operations. When obsolescent structures that interfere with human resources development are phased out, major barriers to job satisfaction and lack of volunteer motivation will be removed.

I am talking about a sharp reduction in process and a refocus on outcomes. Process drives so much of what we do today because process protects traditional power. Converting hierarchically trained managers into team leaders is not an easy task. After having invested 20 years climbing the corporate or association ladder, it will be difficult to agree cheerfully to new and seemingly less powerful roles. Those of us who welcome the challenge will reap the benefits.

Can this new work environment succeed? Only if there is commitment to it. Will there be saboteurs and naysayers? Of course. Will some managers feel they are giving up more than they are getting? Possibly. Is it worth trying? Definitely.

We have everything in place to establish urgently needed management models that can then even be exported to the for-profit community.

Yes, there is much for corporate America to learn from us. It is this step in the development of the independent sector of our economy that could provide the impetus for America to downplay process and recapture some of the frontier spirit that moved us fast forward before and can do so again.

The opportunity to lead the way toward the next generation of managers--managers who will be an intimate part of their peer teams, who will have the courage to burn their organizational structure charts behind them, who will function at the epicenter of their organizations because there will not be a top or a bottom, who will focus on people and outcomes--can make this a memorable stage in the evolution of associations.

Dadie Perlov, CAE, is president of Consensus Management Group, New York City, consultants, speakers, and trainers specializing in association management.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:innovations in organizational workplace
Author:Perlov, Dadie
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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