Transforming what seems perfectly okay
Most transformation projects are designed to change organisational habits and practices and to improve or streamline processes. The transformation aims to modify behaviours and get individuals to support and embrace a change from a situation which feels undesirable or which cold, hard facts demonstrates is unsustainable.
But what if things in your workplace are fine? What if your staff are quite satisfied and performing consistently, KPIs are being met and nothing is broken? Why do you want to change at all? How, if you do want to change, do you get your people to move off the flat expanse of the okay plateau, and back on the incline toward ‘great’, ‘improving’, ‘motivated’ and ‘innovative’?
I first heard about the ‘okay plateau’ in a book about memory called Moonwalking with Einstein (Foer, 2011). It’s by Joshua Foer, a journalist who trained for (and then won) the US Memory Championships in 2006. In the book, he talks about how he reached a point in his training where he could not get any better at the memory task he was trying to improve at, no matter how much he repeated it or practised. He had reached some kind of ‘adequate level’ that he could not exceed. He was on the okay plateau.
The Okay Plateau
The okay plateau in individuals
You’ve been in your job for a number of years, you’re familiar with your chosen industry, the tools, the methodologies and you can do anything assigned to you. You’re cruising, you’re comfortable.
The okay plateau in teams
Everyone works well together, KPIs are met and morale is generally good. There’s a touch of listlessness every now and then, and not a lot of enthusiasm for new projects, but nothing that jeopardises overall performance.
The okay plateau in organisations
Budgets and growth targets are met, and your position in the market is fairly stable. The leadership team appears cohesive and each department is ticking along as it should. Business is controlled, steady and well-managed.
Actually, this doesn’t sound so bad. What is wrong with the okay plateau? Nothing, really, except that individuals, teams and companies cannot sustain this flat line. It’s a form of complacency that is likely to result in business decline, team dissatisfaction and individuals with itchy feet and minds. For an organisation, this state of inertia also puts you at risk from your competitors, who might sneak up on your market position with a new innovation.
Getting off the Okay Plateau
So how do you get off the okay plateau? First, you have to ‘admit’ you are on it, then you have to purposefully try to get off it. Foer proposes four strategies.
1. Get out of your comfort zone and be willing to fail and learn from it
When you are cruising, you aren’t making mistakes and if you aren’t making mistakes, you’re probably not learning anything new. This strategy proposes that you consciously do something you haven’t done before, and challenge yourself to fail with awareness.
For an individual, this might mean doing a completely new task or thinking up a way to innovate a standard process; then analyse with openness and honestly what didn’t work, what needs to be better and devise ways to avoid the known failures and improve.
In a team setting, this strategy could involve introducing a new process, forming a new project group or setting a new target that is currently out of reach. Most importantly, the team needs to be aware of the strategy in order to consciously engage with the learning process and feel ‘safe’ in failure.
Failures at organisational level can be expensive, but they are still a necessary part of any growth or improvement programme. Controlled failures are recommended here, so start with something small and low-impact and then scale objectives to keep the upward learning momentum. For example, pilot a new project in one team, and spend time analysing the results before rolling out to the whole company.
2. Walk in the shoes of someone who is more confident or skilled than you
This is like the notion of ‘fake it til you make it’, which rests on the idea that imitation can become reality. This is not to say pretend to be a surgeon and you will be. More like pretend to have confidence and skill beyond your current capability and perform as though you are past the learning curve. And if this results in failure, examine it and learn from it.
In a team, this might be striving to set a new benchmark or standard in a known process. Again, the team needs to be aware of what is being asked, so they can participate consciously in the improvement activity.
At organisational level, it might be about trying to emulate the success of a close competitor or similarly sized company. In other words, aim to be Coke not Pepsi.
3. Actively seek critical and immediate feedback
Seeking feedback creates a conversation that openly discusses how to get from ‘okay’ to ‘great’. As a writer, I thrive on editorial feedback and have learned (through many, many editorial massacres) how to communicate better and how to keep improving my writing. I am convinced there is no ceiling on how far I can improve and much I can learn. But I have to have feedback.
It is not easy for some people to accept feedback, as it can be taken as a personal attack on performance. Well, grow up I say. Feedback delivered using the right language, and with the intent of improving a product, process or service can only be beneficial. There will be no sting if you are accepting feedback with the same intent.
At an individual level, this may include seeking feedback from your boss, your peers, subordinates and people you know in customer and vendor organisations.
In a team, this might mean getting feedback from other groups who are internal or external customers by way of completing a form or a survey.
At an organisational level, employee surveys, customer surveys, public surveys are all options to get feedback on the organisational performance.
4. Treat what you do like a science (test, hypothesise, theorise)
Just like in a lab, the scientific approach is about creating specific conditions in which change or innovation can be controlled, examined and learned from. This can lend objectivity as well as structure to what can feel like a chaotic process.
In a project team, for example, this might involve brainstroming a theory (a change or innovation), setting up the methodology (delegating tasks and defining roles) and then executing the process in a controlled environment (such as to a test group or within a timeframe). This could be followed by discussion and analysis of results (project review), then a change or tweak to the theory and repetition. As theories are tested and improved, the new experiments will provide the forward and upward momentum to move away from okay.
We all find ourselves cruising from time to time and there is nothing essentially wrong with that. But to avoid staying in that state, you need to have awareness. This means noticing when you feel a bit unchallenged, noticing when your team is shrugging and yawning, noticing organisational stagnancy and then deciding to do something about it. Getting off the plateau requires a bit of energy, but it can be achieved through deliberate, conscious actions and the application of some straightforward methods.
The rewards are twofold. You, your team and your organisation have the self-satisfaction that new-found purpose and growth brings. And you, your team and your organisation are protected from the threat of competitors who have not reached or have not accepted being on the okay plateau.
Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein . London: Penguin Books.