Commitment By Thrashing It Out

Tom Peters

At a recent seminar, talk turned to job descriptions and the evaluation of a job’s worth relative to others. Two participants were touting a popular and complex system and the consultants who help firms install it. Others, who had been “done” by the same system and consultants, were openly hissing.

I expressed grave doubts about the process. But one thoughtful participant pressed me, explaining that his Pittsburgh-based professional services firm recently had acquired another firm; salaries for the same job were all over the map. Surely, he avowed, there was a need to bring about order. And dispassionate consultants, with a rigorous methodology, could provide rational advice.

I again demurred. My alternative advice: Get the top 15 to 25 people to go “off site” for two or three intense days. Schedule long sessions, with a little hiking or skiing to relieve the tension from time to time. Take off the suit coats. Debate, shout, cajole, and reformulate. Don’t leave until you’ve hashed out a tentative consensus—informal, but on paper. Repeat the process in miniature, with groups of 10 or 20, at all levels and from all sites. Then reconvene the senior team offsite again, to noodle some more and solidify the findings.

The above will probably use up less out-of-pocket cash than calling in consultants, but it will carry a much higher “opportunity cost” (days of executive and non-executive time). The payoff, though, will likely be the forging of lasting bonds, some answers to specific problems, and, most important, creation of a process of problem-solving that can be eternally helpful.

While I don’t dismiss all consultants’ algorithms, I believe they are worthless—or worse—in cases of the sort that the seminar participant confronted. Issues like his are value-laden and emotional. The application of so-called dispassionate and rational schemes for rating jobs (receptionist or partner) may help you get through the day, but it will almost always paper over the real issues. The mechanistic solution will fall apart in practice. What has to happen here is plain vanilla, human interaction. Egos must be exorcised. Values (core beliefs, local cultural practices) must be aired and compared, with their origins traced and explained. Trust must be developed, commitment to the solution must be painstakingly sought. Only the expenditure of time, long walks along the beach and maybe a Bud or two will help sort out this type of issue.

Make no mistake, I am a bitter opponent of the death grip that committees impose on so many firms. So I’m not talking about creating standing committees, but about people hanging out together, in an only partially structured setting, to create bonds and work through important problems.

Likewise, while I reject the phony structure that most consultants bring to such a table, I don’t denigrate analysis per se. For instance, I applaud writing all sorts of stuff on giant pads. Suppose you need to evaluate and compare scores of jobs in a host of locations. Go and hole up by the seaside or in the local Ramada Inn. Write names, locations, job titles, people’s names, or whatever else you want on those pads. You might even use a giant magnetic board with movable blocks. I envision “real” (line) people, not staff experts, running back and forth to the board, suggesting this or that “position” for this or that person in this or that job or locale. Suggestions may trigger cat calls or applause or both—but always lots of debate. “Why?” “But what about. … ?” “We’ve always done …”

Issues surface, rationales are developed, discarded, and modified. Commitment slowly emerges, based on the repeated sharing of personal and professional beliefs. The outcome is likely to be more rational (when it comes to implementation) and perceived to be much more equitable than that which follows from a rote procedure developed by outsiders. (Incidentally, no personnel consultants that I know use their own schemes to evaluate people in their firms.)

High school principal Dennis Littky, whom I mentioned in last week’s column, devoted a full year to the process of gaining clarity around a few goals. Formal and informal sessions with school board and community members, teachers, administrators, maintenance and food-service workers—and students—enabled everyone to gradually wade toward consensus, buy-in, and then clarity. For Johnsonville Foods President Ralph Stayer, the beginning of the goal-clarification and commitment process took two years. Had Littky’s or Stayer’s approach been formalized, shortened, schematized, and overseen by a
consultant, each would have failed.

Decisions about issues, small and large, which deal with equity and core values (pay or corporate goals, or even a new computer system) are not “decisions” in the conventional sense. They are processes that require strong psychological commitment, or “ownership,” if they are to produce fair, equitable—and implementable—outcomes. Assessments can, and indeed should, be written down; sketches, charts, and even complex diagrams may abet the clarification process. But lots of time spent testing, checking the feel, proposing, and erasing is the only sure way to move the organization forward without sweeping the most important issues under the carpet.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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