Voluntary Corporate Alzheimer’s

I’ve consulted at a couple government agencies that have a policy of every officer changing jobs every couple of years. There are a lot of good reasons for this, including benefits to the organization at a whole, but when combined with a performance review system that focuses on individual achievement, this approach ensures that knowledge management is damn near impossible and locks the organization into status quo or worse. It’s like the organization has deliberately chosen to give itself Alzheimer’s Disease: the organization suffers increasing memory loss, confusion, and eventually an inability to learn new things or respond to its environment.

Good things about mobility

In the Department of State, Foreign Service Officers and their families are deployed to foreign countries (job is what it says on the tin), and we learned a lot from the days when you went and stayed for a decade or more. One thing we learned is “clientitis.” Diplomats would become so familiar with and fond of the country to which they were assigned that there was a non-zero risk of them putting that countries goals above those of their own country, or excusing their host country’s behavior. There was ego entanglement – diplomats would start to believe that the successes or failures of the host country were a reflection or result of their personal presence and efforts. We couldn’t really establish robust diplomatic presences everywhere, because no one would sign up to go live in most countries. It’s one thing to move your family to Paris for 10 years, but another to move them to Port Moresby or Port-au-Prince – no one is excited about a job that has a high chance of your wife and children getting raped and murdered. But if you are only going to be there for a couple years, your family might be able to stay safe for that long, or you can do a separated tour…and you have the chance of going somewhere you like better as a reward (I don’t say “somewhere nice” because Foreign Service Officers have varying ideas of nice. I know some that live for being assigned to Bangkok and others that would pay to never serve there.)

To be honest, the ego entanglement still happens, especially in the high-level management that isn’t serving overseas but is responsible for reporting up to the Secretary on a region. That’s an artifact of the individual performance review.

Foreign Service Officers, like our military officers, are commissioned officers in a disciplined service. This means that they have been commissioned by the President and that they have to go where they are assigned. If there are no specific pressing national needs, some choice is allowed. As commissioned officers, they are under an “up or out” promotion system – if you aren’t continually improving and moving up the chain of command, you are removed from the service. There are time limits on how long an officer can remain at any given rank. This necessitates individual performance appraisals, but I don’t believe that should be the only evaluation framework.

In other agencies that have a “move jobs” culture, it’s to ensure that expertise built up in one location or job gets translated back into the rest of the organization, but in most cases it’s optional. There are more mobility options than any of the private firms I’ve worked with, but it’s also acceptable to stay in one place your whole career. Park Rangers who work at large, much-visited parks get good at different skills than Rangers who work at small, obscure parks, and providing the option to move parks both allows Rangers to cross-train and learn from peers as well as avoid burn-out. Park Rangers who serve for years at the same park have a deep and rich knowledge about the park’s history, ecology, environment, visitor patterns, quirks, and needs. A park benefits from the interaction of that deep knowledge and organizational memory with new ideas about how to improve things.

Penelope’s Weaving

What happens when you have an organizational culture that requires job movement every couple years combined with a reward and recognition system that is only focused on individual achievement? Imagine yourself in this position for a moment: you’ve just started a new job and you have 10 months to demonstrate that you are the best thing that’s happened to this job and this company since Aeron chairs. I suspect you are going to be pretty selective about what you spend your energy and personal capital on, and I suspect that you are going to do some kind of internal math that estimates how important a project is to your reviewers, how flashy it is, how hard it will be to do, and how long it will take.

Luma Institute’s Importance-Difficulty Matrix

This means you’ll probably focus on the most important and least difficult items. That’s not necessarily a bad thing…but it’s likely to mean that you’ll never address the strategic items, the things that are really important but also very difficult, or that take longer and won’t come to fruition while you are in that job. You don’t want to waste all your resources setting your successor up for success, after all!

Things that fall into the “easy” category often include whatever new thing your predecessor started, because it’s unlikely to have gotten fully established into the programmatics and culture yet, and probably hasn’t delivered a lot of value yet. (I mean, most organizations rate work on activity or process, rather than outcomes or impact, but when you are looking for something to do, the value story becomes important.)

At the same time, anything you did in your last job is currently being undone by whoever followed you, and you have to know that whatever you do here and now will be a target for your successor.

Penelope weaving Laertes’ funeral shroud by Max Klinger I think

One of my friends compared this to Penelope ripping up her own weaving every night. For those not conversant with Greek mythology or The Odyssey, Penelope was Odysseus’ wife. He was gone a long time having all these adventures with Charybdis and Cyclops and Circe and Calypso (and alliteration?) and in the meantime, men began to notice that Penelope was interestingly single and wealthy. Penelope herself did not feel she was on the market, and was confident that Odysseus would make it home. For whatever reason she couldn’t just tell them to drown in a sewer, so she found other ways to put them off. She told a suitor that she was weaving a funeral shroud for her father-in-law and absolutely could not think about re-marrying until she finished. She wove all day to show how dedicated she was to finishing it…and then un-wove it all night.

Un-weaving something takes effort. She had to spend all day in the same place; looms are not portable. She had to carefully intermix multiple yarns according to a plan, and it’s physically tiring. Then she had to do the same thing, carefully working them apart and rolling them back up, which was also physically tiring, and do it in secret while giving up sleep. It was that important to her.

What we do when we incentivize quick wins in an environment of frequent turnover is make it important to everyone to undo any progress and continually set our organizations back. We ensure that long-term projects, Horizon 3 disruptive stuff, can’t be tackled. We ensure that we won’t take on ANY innovation, in fact, because the first two stages of innovation (prototype and pilot) take time and generate a lot of learning via tests, pivots, and failures. We ensure that our workforce is incapable of (and uninterested in) addressing complex challenges or system issues.

I think we should keep the mobility, possibly even increase it. Rather than locking people into a box on an org chart, I think we should view them as a collection of skills, knowledge, experience, interests, expertise, and competence, and pull them into efforts as needed. Ideally each employee can thus have a combination of work that’s in their wheelhouse, work with people they know and trust, short term achievements, long term projects, work with new people, and challenges that broaden their abilities or allow them to demonstrate that they are ready for more responsibility.

More importantly, I think we should quit evaluating employees once a year on their individual performance. I think we should shift to evaluating how successful teams are at moving the organization toward its strategic goals; those evaluations will happen daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually and be about outcomes and impact and value, and they will grade the team as a whole as well as how much damage the team did to other efforts.

Individuals can self-assess their own daily impact, and work backwards from their to look at their activity. Teams can self-assess weekly, and should utilize an outside coach or facilitator for their monthly assessment. Monthly assessments should be shared, as they offer a chance to pivot, combine forces, or reallocate resources quickly. Quarterly evaluations begin to take the form of value stories and are done by someone above the team in the corporate structure. Annual reviews are all about team impact and are done by a small panel of people who have the responsibility for the success of the people, the project, and the organization.

Until organizations shift away from individual evals, employees will hoard information, undermine each other, withhold good ideas, destabilize long-term efforts, and sabotage forward progress out of self defense, because that’s what the company is telling them to do.


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