10 May 2011

The Curse of Assumed Common Goals

I have a particularly fond memory of my younger brother (though, I must admit that my memories are not the clearest on this topic and I might have embellished parts). It was back when we were all younger. The family, all except my brother, was all gathered in the living room to watch a movie or some such. As we were enjoying our peace my brother came suddenly bursting into the room yelling, “I got it, I got it!” His entrance made such a shock that we all shifted our attached to him and the “it” he had “got”. My mother, in a caring tone, congratulated him and asked if she could see “it”. He was so proud he popped open his hand and showed her. To her great horror, and the family’s astonishment, there, lying in his tiny palm was my mother’s beta fish. It was beyond all help as my younger brother had, in his great excitement, neglected to handle the fish with care and it had been crushed to death while in transit from the upstairs bedroom (where the fish had no doubt been sleeping) down to the living room.

Though there are many humorous spins and analogies that I could make with this story, there is one in particular that I wish to make: there can be grave danger in assumed common goals. My mother’s goal was to keep the fish alive while my brother thought the goal was to catch the pesky fish. In this case, the assumed common goal (that really was not common) led to the death of a fish, but in many cases the assumed common goals can lead to much greater problems.

On some level we all know and understand this, but even in the most basic of assumptions we all too quickly dismiss this truth. Instead of soliciting our goals, we assume that everyone, or at least the people in the immediate vicinity of our lives, have the same basic beliefs. Then we are faced with shock, dismay or disappointment when we find out that what we thought was a universal goal was really only a personal goal.

This curse of assumed common goals is pervasively around us in our daily endeavors and projects. Think of the last time you were driving with a young child in the car. Your primary goal was likely to travel safely and you likely assumed that everyone else on the road had the same goal. This was probably not the case. Instead, most people probably had a primary goal of getting to their destination quickly, or to find out where their friends are before they pass them.

While driving safely on the road might not be every driver’s primary goal (though it should be) it is still a high goal for most drivers. A better illustration might be a work place venue: collaborating to reduce costs across the company. There are many ways to go about the process of reducing cost, but I will focus on two: by eliminating jobs and rearranging the company accordingly; and by streamlining processes and eliminating positions that are no longer needed. Both methods will result in the end reduction of overall costs for the company, but they each have very different focuses.

The process of eliminating positions is one that is likely to have a primary goal of seeing what the company can live without. Do we need someone special to clean up, or can we convince other employees to do the work? Do we need someone to oversee these workers, or can we assign them to a different manager and expect less supervision? With this goal in mind, reducing costs is much like dieting with a very definite list of things that you can and cannot do without.

Consider working under the assumption that the other departments in the company were also operating under this same paradigm. Imagine the shock and horror you would experience when you found out that another department was in fact binging instead of dieting. They have been spending money on projects that, in the dieting mind set, should have been cut. This horror is likely to come because the offending department is operating under a different way of reducing costs.

The process of streamlining is one that is likely to have a primary goal of automating as much as possible. Is there any way to digitize this data without manually inputting it? Can we make this paperwork flow smoother so it takes less time? Can we create self-help forums for employees to handle basic issues by themselves? With this goal in mind, reducing costs is much like exercising with a list of practices that will allow you to stay trim without foregoing all of the good stuff.

While both of these methods can produce the same desired results, reduced costs, they have very different methods of achieving those results along with different operational positions (the basis for which decision are made) and the end results that each gains. It is while considering these minor differences that the real differences between the common goals becomes pronounced and, as they continue, begin to clash.

The elimination of positions (dieting) is operating from a position of retreat or withdrawal. It says, “We have overreached and done too much to possibly be able to maintain our position so we must cut back even if that means that we give up some good stuff.” It is a defensive reaction to the environment and sends a clear signal that the only way to survive is to cut back.

The irony of these two styles is that both are equally valid expressions of the same goal, it is entirely possible for managers in both departments to do extensive work (even while working together) to reduce costs and only towards the end of the process realize that the other has been going about the process entirely differently than they have. The incorrect assumption of a common goal is not likely to bother the streamlining manager, but is likely to cause quite a stir for the eliminating manager because he has been sacrificing and “going without” for the benefit of the company only to find out that others have been enjoying themselves and still saving money simply by “exercising” a little.

The two styles will clash dramatically when the cost savings proposals are put forth. The elimination position will present a plan that requires cut equal to the savings. It will present no long term incentive for taking action but will instead focus on how the cuts will benefit the company now. As operations improve, this position will insist that the eliminated workers are restored in order to keep up with the new demand.

The streamlining position will present a radically different plan that requires upfront investment in order to improve systems. Upon the completion of the system improvements, efficiencies will be realized such that positions can be eliminated or reallocated. There is no short term incentive for taking action (in fact, spending money to make money is often considered a disincentive) but the plan will instead focus on bringing savings to the company in the long run. As operations improve, this position will not insist on a directly proportional increase of workers because the improved systems can handle more throughput with less workers.

In the end, both managers will have put forth effort to reduce costs, both managers will have action plans that will save money for the company and both managers will be in alignment with the overarching company goal of reducing costs. They will, however, have plans that look nothing alike and the end results will be dramatically different all because they did not share the same common goal.

No comments:

Post a Comment