Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Strangling the Golden Goose

Aesop was an uneducated slave who lived in ancient Greece. Yet he could teach a thing or two to some accomplished modern-day executives in the A/E industry. Particularly relevant in this prolonged recession is his popular fable The Goose and the Golden Egg.

No doubt you're familiar with the story: A countryman grew rich by selling the golden eggs that his goose laid, one each day. Thinking he could increase his fortune, he killed the goose only to find no golden eggs inside it.

Similarly, a few years ago most A/E firms were enjoying an unparalleled period of growth and profitability. Then the economy tanked. Now some executives are badgering their managers and staff trying to extract more production from a smaller pool of opportunities. In the process, they may be effectively strangling the golden goose that was delivering the goods just months ago.

I suspect the problem is especially acute in publicly-owned firms subject to satisfying shareholder expectations each quarter. Achieving the budget is now a stretch. It's not even a possibility for many. Yet that doesn't seem to abate the pressure to still meet the numbers in some firms. Of course, the management pressure isn't limited to public companies.

Okay, I understand the business drivers behind this. But as Aesop realized, you don't increase production by mistreating the producers. There's a point where the pressure to produce becomes counter-productive. Some firms have passed that point. Such heavy-handed tactics fly in the face of all we've learned about the dynamics of human performance.

There's a better way. Tough times don't call for managers to be tough on their employees. In fact, the opposite will probably yield better results. Here are a few suggestions for those of you in executive or management roles:

Define reasonable metrics for the times. This is where the problem starts for some firms. For example, you can't manufacture higher utilization out of thin air no matter how much you ratchet up the pressure. Instead, you need to rethink what is actually achievable. Who decides? The best approach is to let people have input in defining the metrics they are responsible for meeting.

Focus on actions rather than results. I know, success requires attaining certain results. But if what you're doing isn't getting the desired results (after recalibrating your expectations), you need to change what you're doing. What I'm seeing in some cases, however, is a myopic focus on results without giving appropriate attention to rethinking the approach. You've probably heard it said that this is the definition of insanity.

Celebrate success. The best way to motivate people is to give them positive reinforcement. Yet the prevailing motivational approach is negative in some firms these days. Achieving goals is taken for granted, but falling short of others becomes the main focus of management interest. It's not an effective way to turn things around. Instead, turn attention to what people are doing right and their achievements--even the mundane ones. That helps build momentum towards performance improvement.

Restore some fun to the workplace. A comment I've heard repeatedly in recent months is something akin to, "It hasn't been much fun lately." You can't do much about external forces that may be impinging on fun at work, but what about things you can control? Is a little fun too much to ask in a down economy? Not at all, and studies show it can have a demonstrable effect on performance. Take steps to lighten the mood and break the pressure--staff lunches, contests, silly hats, whatever. The smiles may well go straight to the bottom line.

What about your firm? Are you caring for the goose or trying to squeeze a few more eggs out of it? Aesop's ancient wisdom is still good advice for businesses today, especially in these tough times.

No comments: