"Computer Says No"

October 6, 2016 Focus area: Scaling Agile , Digital Transformation

For my thesis I conducted interviews at a museum. Trying to find out what made the organisation and its employees tick I asked members of the Management Team to describe their institute to me. They looked at me as if I spoke a different language. So I tried again: “When you’re at a birthday party and friends or a relative asks you where you work and what you do, what do you tell them?” And they responded “Well, I work at a museum, we show old paintings.” I was astounded. If members of the Management Team can’t even explain what the purpose of their organisation is, what does that say about the organisation?

Fragmented decision making

Not knowing or understanding why they were doing things reflected in their decision-making which was very specific to a time and context, a snapshot that is not representative for the organisation in the long term, also known as garbage can decision making. This museum would shift between highbrow exhibitions and blockbusters and seriously considered selling their contemporary art venue. None of these decisions are necessarily bad, as long as they are not in conflict with your purpose, because if they are these decisions will hurt your organisation in the long run, preventing you from realising your purpose. Some in the museum identified the institute as both a historical and contemporary museum. Selling the contemporary art venue solely for monetary goals would prevent the museum to organise any contemporary projects and thus form a tremendous conflict with their organisational purpose.

Agile transformation 

Conflicts in purpose and practices are not limited to the cultural or non-profit sector, practices and principles conflict within many organisations. Something we see again and again working on agile transformations is corporates identifying themselves as quick and flexible organisations with high levels of trust, while in practice they hang on to protocols and hierarchy. This is because people don’t know or understand why they are doing what they do and then tend to resort to what they do know. Which are result-based, short-term focused decisions. Of course results shouldn’t be ignored, they are indicators of business performance and should be critically evaluated to find whether what you do is working or not. However, results should never be leading in decision making. Evaluate results but steer with purpose. You will notice the difference immediately when you’re dealing with customer service that is treating every situation individually or does it as prescribed by the protocol. Take the famous Little Britain sketch where someone would come to customer service and when asked a question, all the service employee can do is rely on protocol instead of using common sense. A stoic response “computer says no” is all they get. Of course this is an extreme, but the situations ridiculed do in fact exist.

Understand why

Obviously, no organisation wants this. You want employees that can work autonomously and create value for your company. For this to happen every individual needs to be made aware of the organisation’s purpose and know that is the reason why they do things the way they do. Simon Sinek also explained this in “Start with why”. All organisations know what it is they do, some of them know how they do it but very few know why they do what they do. Knowing why things are done changes behaviour and motivation, this is a neurological fact. So making people aware and giving them trust and autonomy is what will help them make well-founded decisions that will benefit the organisation in the long run. A good practice example is Ikea. Their purpose, to create a better everyday life, resonates in the products supplied as well as the services provided. When I went to Ikea to return a product I got a refund without any fuss and the service employees made a genuine effort to help me out.

Leading with purpose generates value 

Which also triggers the question, what value do you want to create? Why do you do things the way you do? In the case of the museum I interviewed, being a museum and show paintings is not a purpose, that is what you do and won’t motivate employees to go the extra mile and create value for your organisation. Having an evolutionary purpose is essential for your organisation to succeed in today’s economy as well as to create a working environment where people won’t just take decisions based on monetary incentives, such as selling the contemporary arts venue, but are motivated to create value and work autonomously.