Leadership & Organization

Bringing anatomy to life: the hard- & soft- tissue of an organization…

In my last post (yes, it has been a while!) I discussed the soft and hard tissue of an organization and tried to show their complementarity and alignment (take a moment to re-read it since this post will assume understanding of the main points). In fact it goes far beyond that. Just like a body, the health and interaction of both is critical to the life, well-being and survival of an organization.

While it makes sense in theory, I’d like to suggest a few propositions and axioms that provoke your thinking and bring the “inter-connection” to life. Do you agree? Can you think of others?

  • There’s a saying: “people join companies but leave managers.” Translation – people typically join for the hard tissue but will leave for the soft tissue.
  • Building on the above: “hard tissue is evaluated/measured; soft tissue is felt.”
  • As industries become more competitive the soft tissue often becomes the tie breaker or key differentiator…not only because “culture is king” but it actually drives and enables the hard tissue to flex, react, correct/recover, heal, develop…
  • Soft tissue is sensitive and requires compatibility to stay healthy…if not, it can literally bring the hard tissue to its knees. While people in an organization can change their behavior, companies who place a high priority on soft tissue may find it necessary to separate from leaders and employees who are simply incompatible with the culture (or threaten it). While this is can be excruciatingly difficult and requires courage, “people change” is often the acid test of ones commitment to culture.
  • Despite the rising valuation of soft tissue, it’s important to continually adjust the mix of hard tissue (ex. processes, strategy, incentives, people, goals…) to nurture and provide structure for the soft tissue to take root. Managing and adjusting the interactivity of both must become a key management priority (see conclusions below).

A key conclusion: because hard tissue is the traditional “bread and butter” of most management training & practice (tools, approaches, methods, processes…), many leaders find themselves unstructured, poorly equipped and ill at ease with managing soft tissue (often seen as a fuzzy science). While its value is on the rise, the competency and tools to intentionally nurture it is lagging.

If classic management teams spend 90% of their time today on hard tissue, there are progressive teams already shifting to 70/30 (hard/soft). Will it ever be 50/50? Where’s yours?

I submit the shift will continue with leading companies first intentionally nurturing the soft tissue, then advancing to managing both hard- & soft- tissue as a system and “organic whole.” In my view, those who succeed at this feat will have heavy odds in their favor of strong leadership positions in their respective industries.

Time for anatomy: the hard- & soft- tissue of an organization…

If you frequently read about management- & strategy- fundamentals, you’re probably very familiar with certain common terminology – vision, mission, goals, strategy, objectives, processes…

On the other hand, if you’re into human dynamics & development, you’re probably more in tune with another set of terminology – values, culture, behaviors, competencies, skills, people…

While most would agree these two “families” are certainly not in opposition, I find that many become somewhat hamstrung when trying to relate them. Should they even be related?… are they apples and oranges (completely different)?….or maybe just apples of different color or flavor (somewhat the same, but expressed differently)?

I think the answer is “neither!”… and propose to use a different metaphor – the hard- and soft- tissue of the body.

The hard tissue is all the structural “stuff” (skeleton) we typically think of in the “strategy family,” while the soft tissue (nerves & organs) is all the “stuff ” we would typically put in the “human dynamics” family.

So, beyond the metaphor, how do these two “tissues” of an organization’s body line up? Let me propose a very simple framework:

Hard & Soft Tissue

Clearly, just as in our bodies, it’s not a question of either or, it must be BOTH AND. Neither can exist in isolation or in parallel worlds, their interconnection has to be understood and intentionally managed in order to ensure optimum health and high-performance.

As a teaser, my next post will deal with exactly the above point and answer the question: “so what”? I’ll explore some tangible interconnections, similarities and differences that will hopefully make it come to life in an impactful way.

In the meantime I’d love to hear from you…Does the metaphor make sense to you?…does it provide a useful lens to reconcile concepts and see the alignment between them?…have you already thought of “vital” interconnections applications?

Where’s your trash pile?

In a recent study featured by Harvard Business Review a manager was cited who routinely asked his employees the above question in their performance evaluation. Those who had trash heaps of “good efforts gone awry” were rewarded and encouraged to continue to have courage to forge ahead. Those who didn’t (aka “small trash piles”) were admonished to aim higher, push harder and take more initiative and risk.tumblr_inline_nuo9bzxitv1rajhbn_400

What’s the rationale behind such a “reckless” question? Isn’t it better to “manage by objective” and handout trophies for spectacular performance?

Let’s cut to the chase…if you want to raise a workforce that’s safe, slow, incremental and perfectionist – YES; if you want a learning and innovative organization that takes risk…and yes, sometimes fails spectacularly…BUT reaches far beyond the current paradigm – NO.

Why? Just think of the chef’s kitchen – vegetable peelings, pots, pans, dishes…or the artist’s studio with pictures, sketches, drawings, crumpled papers…

An old German saying captures it well: “wherever you cut wood, you’ll find sawdust.” In other words “trash” (aka failure) will happen whenever serious work is being done. It means new things are being tested, risk is being taken, learning is happening.

Here’s the bottom line – there’s no great performance and no breakthrough unless there’s trial & error, risk & failure (if so, it’s being hidden). Every failure is a step closer to success. If you don’t have a good-sized trash heap you’re not stretching far enough.

So as we’re just coming out of the “January review- & objective setting- season,” I challenge you to have courage to ask the “trash pile question.” Ask yourself…your spouse…your children… your subordinates. Help them recover from the shock of the question by breaking through the existing “performance paradigm paralysis” and framing the “trash heap” positively.

What‘s being learned? What should we try next? How could it lead to the next iteration of progress?…what if it ends up in the trash heap again?…some of it will – guaranteed!…but, so what! – we’ll try hard, learn, keep moving, one failure closer to success – GO for it!

Picture: theramtimetimes