Becoming A Strategically Wide Organization

In my previous post, I wrote about using metrics that are as much about reflecting width (joy, quality) as length (longevity, quantitative performance). In this post, I look at how that applies to organizations.

I’ve encountered relatively few organizations that are driven — if they are being honest — by quality, depth, and richness as their principle measures of success. They are about length — going further, faster, and more efficiently — than width. Width is about quality, depth, and richness. Length — quantity, volume, and scope — is what CEO’s and managers get evaluated on.

Length and Width can coexist, but nurturing them requires intention. We must design it in.

A Case Study in Length: Faculty Performance

When I was a full-time professor, the evaluations of my output focused on 1) the number of publications I had (and the prestige of the journals published in), 2) the number and dollar value of grants I held, 3) the number of graduate students I supervised, and 4) the number of courses that I taught, lectures I’d given, and other presentations I delivered. Each year, I’d be assessed on these factors and told whether I was performing below, above, or at expectations. It should be noted that no one was ever told in specific terms what the expectations were.

I was not judged on whether any of those publications I had were read and enjoyed or contributed to anything meaningfully done with the science I produced. No one cared what research I did, only that it contributed to more grants, more students, and more publications. My publications didn’t have to be read, used, or even make sense — just as long as they were in a place that was considered by my peers to be worthwhile. (Fun fact: an article is considered among the top social science research is cited in other studies less than ten times per year. Many articles are never cited in any other research — suggesting they are rarely read or used).

My graduate students were an afterthought (to the evaluation); all I needed to do was ensure that they got through their program in a timely manner. The evaluation didn’t consider what they did, learned, or became because of my mentorship. As for my classes, my fellow faculty didn’t know anything about the substance of what I taught, only whether it was 1) a course title that was required by the curriculum, 2) how many students enrolled in and completed the course, 3) whether the grade distribution approximated a normal curve, and 4) if anyone complained about something. None of what I was assessed on had to do with quality, real impact on health, science, or society, learning, or expanding people’s relationships.

I might have done that and made a difference, but that was on me. I was neither encouraged or supported in doing that because that wasn’t what I — and faculty members as a whole — were evaluated on. Inspiring and mentoring students, contributing to the betterment of society through science and service, and professional development are what university marketing departments tout, they aren’t what makes for a high-performing professor.

I managed to perform above expectations in every year I was a faculty member, but that doesn’t mean I made a difference. To determine that, I had to use my own evaluation metrics; those focused on width, not length. The relationships I had with students, my staff, the classroom environment I helped to create, and the work I did in collaboration with community partners is what gave width to my work and life. That was what I valued, not what the university did. It’s a big reason why I am no longer there.

Valuing Value

Width is about focusing on deep, lasting value and tied to the qualities of experience rather than the generation of products. This is one of the reasons why traditional strategic planning is poor at producing width in an organization. The measures and metrics we choose are ill-equipped for the task at hand. Most organizations emphasize quantity, not value as judged by what they evaluate their performance on. If we take the adage “What gets measured, gets managed” as true, then it means our strategic direction is shaped by increasing our length, not width.

Traditional strategic planning informed by conventional productivity metrics will not lead you to excellence. It can’t. You’re balancing too many variables at once and most are fickle. Metrics like service engagements, products sold, revenue generated, staff hours and growth all assess activity, but offer nothing of quality. You can succeed on each of these items put into a plan and produce something of little value, sustainability, or impact even with a premium product or service.

Many of these variables are incongruent with one another. You will increase on one, and lower another; these metrics and goals occupy the middle ground. And the middle isn’t where excellence lives.

Success and Excellence

Success is often confused with excellence. The two concepts are very different.

Success: sək-sĕs′ (noun).
  1. The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted.
  2. The gaining of fame or prosperity.
  3. The extent of such gain.

Note the language of intention, desire, and planning in this definition. That means connecting what you want to a design with an expected outcome. This sounds great, but what if you’re uncertain about what is necessary to address a situation? What if you don’t know what you should expect from an action? This is where most innovation lies and where much of the work in human systems fits.

If you’re dealing with a changing market or health and social context, you’re dealing with some level of complexity. Complex situations are not amenable to straightforward strategic planning; they require adaptive strategy and design-driven evaluation. Yet, we set ourselves up for performance metrics that guide strategy in a manner that is not adaptive or responsive to situations.

We might achieve success and still not make a substantive impact.

Wide Strategy

It takes a good idea + courage + execution to be excellent at something. Many organizations I’ve worked with are good at a few of these elements and are successful, fewer are truly excellent. This is because these organizations were designed for length, not width. If you work in the public service, you are guided by political forces that seek volume, reach and quantity, not quality. If you work in non-profits, you are beholden to donors’ interests who often want reach first, then impact (with impact being measured in terms tied to reach).

In each case, there are spaces to reframe the discussion from quantity to quality. It begins with the courage to speak about and develop a vision of what it means to be excellent at something. It requires us to know who we are and who we serve. This is design thinking with strategic design.

Give yourself the time to combine foresight, visioning, and to connect to your values by defining what it is that you value, not the quantity in which you desire something. By focusing on value, we can begin to have conversations about creating organizations that are rich and create wealth. This is how you start the conversation and development of an organization that is about width and length using metrics that can capture both.

If this is what you seek in your work, let’s grab a coffee and talk about how I can help you add width your work.

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Image Credits: Mihály Köles on Unsplash and Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash

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