Is your non-profit designed for performance?

Fighting the Physics

By John Greco
Originally published on April 9, 2012
Re-posted with permission from johnponders blog
performance7Grab a piece of paper.  Make your best paper airplane.”
And the management workshop immediately takes off!
Okay, let ‘em fly!
Some take flight spectacularly.  Others not so much.  This usually causes some guffaws, and some good natured ribbing.  I generally pick one of the more “flight-challenged” ones —
Okay, Bill, come on up to the front of the room.  Here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to fly your plane right down the center of the room.  Aim right for Debbie, right at her! and have it land on the table right in front of her.  Can you picture that?  Be positive.  You can do it!  Okay, keep the vision of that flight in your mind, and let it fly.”
The airplane generally goes anywhere but down the center of the room.  Debbie is momentarily relieved.
Bill; let’s try again.  You can do this!  I believe in you.  Remember the vision?  Right down the center of the room, right at Debbie.  But this time, let me give you a quick training lesson.  Hold your airplane a third of the way from the point, between your thumb and forefinger.  Flex your elbow, pull it back, envision the flight, and then advance your arm and release.  Okay, try it.”
The airplane again goes anywhere but down the center of the room.  Debbie starts to realize she has nothing to fear.
Okay, Bill, let’s get serious.  I’ve got twenty dollars here (as I pull a twenty out of my pocket) and it is all yours if you simply fly your plane down the center of the room, right at Debbie, and have it land right in front of her.  Envision the flight, use the technique I showed you, and think of that twenty.  Okay, go!
The airplane now goes … not down the center.  And not by Debbie; she’s pretty relaxed and smiling now…
Alright Bill.  (My tone has changed.)  “Bill, I told you I believe in you, and still do, but this is your plane to fly.  I asked you to envision your plane flying down the center, to Debbie.  I trained you.  I even motivated you with a twenty in cash.  I’m running out of patience.  I need you to fly your plane down the center of the room at Debbie.  Or else.  Do it.”
Nothing different; no improvement whatsoever.
I don’t understand.  I believed in you Bill.  I helped you envision success.  I trained you.  I motivated you.  And then I threatened you.  And now I need to fire you…
performance8Often in these sessions, after one or two unsuccessful flights I see the “pilot” start adjusting the paper plane: a different fold there, a bending of the wings, sharper folds at the point…  When I see this, I react —“Whoa!”  What are you doing?”
Adjusting the plane so it will fly better.”
Hmmm.  Yes indeed.  Adjusting the plane to fly better.
Paper planes — and organizations — fly as they are designed.  Their performance is fundamentally by design.
And when we want a certain type or level of performance from a paper plane or organization that is not designed to produce that performance, we are in fact “fighting the physics.”
Fighting the physics is what we do when we expect results from a system that has not been designed to produce those results.  It reflects an ignorance of cause and effect; it points fingers and places blame on the people in the system instead of the design of the system.

  • We fight the physics when we expect teamwork while rewarding individual achievement.
  • We fight the physics when we encourage innovation while emphasizing sacred cows, third rails, and CLMs (career-limiting moves).
  • We fight the physics when we expect speed and responsiveness in customer service while structuring multiple layers, enforcing centralized decision making and requiring formal communication channels.
  • We fight the physics when we expect efficiency while not investing in repeatable processes and enabling technology.

Now; there’s nothing wrong with positive thinking; research supports the benefits of a positive mental attitude.  Research also supports how envisioning an outcome can help actualize the vision.  No doubt that when we have a skill or knowledge gap, training makes a difference.  Incentives, be they monetary or otherwise, certainly do get our attention.  As do threats.
But if the organization plane was not designed to fly down the center of the room and land in front of Debbie, no amount of positive thinking, envisioning, training, motivation, and threats will fundamentally and substantially improve it’s performance.
Fighting the physics always results in the physics winning.
Debbie is safe.
We are not.
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