July 24, 2003
Editor's Note: Is your company in survival mode? There are questions you should be asking and steps you can take to improve your company's position—instead of shooting the pianist.
Ever listen to someone playing a piano that's out of tune? Remember the sound? Completely sour. Even hitting a good note doesn't change the terrible sound that comes from an out-of-tune piano.
There are two possibilities for solving this problem. The first is obvious – tune the piano. The second is a little more unrealistic – get rid of the pianist. Maybe someone else can play it. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that even a great pianist like Sergey Rachmaninov could not improve the sound coming from an out-of-tune instrument.
In 1953 Rene Coty, the former president of France, stated, "It's a pity to shoot the pianist when the piano is out of tune." This is a relevant quote for companies that are struggling with direction in a difficult market. Most leaders know the value of planning, and most companies develop strategic plans. If not, shame on them. However, a key question is, Have strategies and plans, like elegant mission statements, become window dressing and plaques that hang on a wall? Does the company strategy have sufficient detail, and is it functional on a day-to-day basis? If the answer to this last question is yes, everyone will know the part they play in the success of the company. If the answer is no, the morale, energy, and success of that company are in jeopardy.
My experience has been that without sufficient, functional direction, a company will be in trouble eventually. More times than not, trouble thrusts the company into a survival mode. This mode leads to cost-cutting and usually cost-cutting begins with cutting people. So here's the pertinent question:
Do we shoot the pianist when the problem is the piano is out of tune?
In Marvin Bower's book The Will to Manage, he said, "Many companies do put off 'getting organized.' But successful companies recognize organizational planning as a specialized activity that can contribute importantly to success." Some companies do in fact develop a plan but fail at effective action – where, how, and by whom will the plan be executed - they plan their work but don't work their plan. Bower also said, "Defective planning can be counted on to bring out the worst in people and to raise costly havoc in the organization." Bower's comment raises the question, Is it more profitable to deal with the problem by first getting rid of people or by taking a hard look at the planning process?
Going back to Coty's statement, will shooting the pianist improve the sound of the music?
An in-tuned company has a key advantage over its competitors –its alignment of purpose and energy. Planning, effectively managing people, and focusing enterprise energy will give an organization a competitive edge. One of the companies I have consulted with is James Hardie in Plant City, Fla. Dave Kessner is the company's U.S. manufacturing manager. His philosophy is "Don't confuse activity with results. It's not about hard work; it's about achieving whatever goals you set for yourself or the organization. We try and make sure we have clearly defined scopes. That way, if some external changes impact the project, the group can get together and re-evaluate the scope of what they are working on. If the external impact changes the overall scope of what they are trying to accomplish, then they need to relook at the project, see if the initial targets are still feasible, and refocus to achieve them."
I believe Dave's approach characterizes a leader who focuses on tuning the piano. Dave echoed the thoughts of Napoleon Hill, motivational author and speaker, who said,
Here are some tuning tips that will help you increase energy in your organization:
Be certain you have clear, concise, functional goals. One of the primary manifestations of being out of tune is that people and departments are not on the same page. If plans are inadequate or incomplete, the entire organization definitely will be confused. When the troops are confused, stress increases and energy and money are wasted.
Also, with inadequate plans, people tend to "make it up" as they go along. They might second-guess what the leader wants, which often turns out to be wrong. The whole process becomes a major morale issue. In fact,
As Bower said, inadequate plans bring out the worst in people. All their fears and insecurities come to the surface, which means enterprise energy goes down the drain along with productivity.
One of the best ways to know if everyone is on the same page, or if your employees understand the goals of the company, is to ask them.
Constantly communicate the goals. Make sure the people are in concert with the plan. Having a plan is important - communicating the plan is imperative! As crazy as it sounds, I've had some leaders tell me, "They ought to know what the goals of the company are." However, when I asked several of the employees, it became painfully obvious that they didn't have a clue what the goals were.
Communicating the goals to employees is inspirational and energizing, especially if the company is struggling. It's a psychological fact that when concise goals are not communicated, energy decreases.
People like to know what to expect. The knowledge provides motivation and camaraderie and encourages them to put their shoulders to the wheel. It's the leader's responsibility to make sure everyone is informed and comprehends the goals of the company.
The leader is the primary tuner. Surprisingly, some leaders are unaware that their organization is out of tune. Whether the lack of knowledge is the result of the leader's inflated ego or lack of ability, he or she believes the organization is on the same page, even when everyone else knows differently. If the leader is not receptive to the insights of others, problems are compounded. Sooner or later employees realize it's a waste of time to try to discuss the issues. You know the story: The Emperor is naked but believes he is completely dressed. All the insight in the world won't convince him otherwise. As a result, when profits dwindle, downsizing becomes the means of increasing profit.
Questioning, listening to, and having confidence in employees are major factors in organizational success. It's important for a leader to have more than one source of information – one source is much too narrow. Heed the advice of Albert Einstein, who said, "The consciousness that created the problem cannot be the same consciousness that solves it."
The leader has to be the motivator of the plan. One way to tune a piano is to measure against a note that is pitched correctly, for instance middle C. From there the other notes are tuned in harmony with that note. The same holds true in an organization – the leader acts as the middle C and creates the operational harmony throughout the organization. When the leader gets out of tune or constantly changes tunes (direction), chaos ensues.
A leader must be consistently committed to the execution of plans and goals and fine tune when necessary.
A leader must place his or her people at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Warren Bennis, university professor, author, and former presidential advisor, said, "Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When this happens, people feel centered and their work has meaning."
Beating up on the pianist by blaming or criticizing won't produce better music. If the pianist doesn't have the right music, whose responsibility is that? Showing respect and dignity is the job of middle C – the leader.
Another way to put employees at the heart of things is to make sure the right person is in the right job. We don't want a tuba player on the piano. Harmony of efforts produces the best result.
The final suggestion for tuning the piano is something I learned in the Air Force, an organization that relies heavily on effective leadership, strategic planning, and adherence to the plan. After each briefing, the superiors would say, "Now, get with the program." All the plans in the world won't work if we don't get with them. As we say down south – "Mean to" don't pick no cotton.