The Organizational Echo – Are Your Guiding Principles Being Implemented?

Mark J. Komen, President

Kodyne, Inc.

Plymouth, MN

You stand at the edge of a mountain canyon.  Lifting your voice, you call out.  Some short time later, you hear your voice echo back to you.  A bit muted perhaps, but easily recognizable as a replica of what you sent out when you called.  In a similar way, echoes are created in organizations when the leaders write and attempt to give life to vision and mission statements and core values declarations which are intended to guide the development and delivery of the organization’s products or services.  Along the way, by intent, neglect or happenstance, the organization’s culture forms as a way of getting things done to achieve that vision and mission.  The culture is shaped by the shared beliefs and values of the organization’s members and is established and ultimately reinforced by the infrastructure elements in place.  These are such things as the reward systems; the way information is created, shared, and communicated; the management selection process, expectations around the way managers, staff and customers interact; how jobs are designed; and how goals are set, to name a few.

So by taking stock of how the philosophies and values messages are actually internalized by the staff and then put into practice in day-to-day business is really listening for and analyzing the “organizational echo.”  That feedback that tells us how well we have created an organization that lives the values we said were important and reflects the mission and ultimate vision of the company.  But all too often, the echo doesn’t much resemble that original voice.  What comes back may range from a somewhat distorted replica of the original to something completely different – perhaps even barely resembling the original intent.

Values and culture

You are probably aware of the concept of “espoused values.”  These are values that sound wonderful and motivating but are paid little more than lip service by the organization’s leaders, managers, or staff.  I have seen evidence that it can be depressing and even career-limiting to be a member of organizations where “walking the talk” was merely a cliché and, in a few instances, you could actually get into trouble for trying to do so, let alone calling people on non-supportive behavior.  All too often, “the way things really get done” (the echo) doesn’t necessarily reflect those declared values and guiding principles (the original voice).  And many times, good intentions aside, the way things get done can work against achieving the organization’s goals and negatively impact or severely limit performance – financial or otherwise.

Assessing organizational culture is one approach I use to gain insight into the system that returns the echo.  Taking a behavioral approach to culture explores what’s said and done in an organization (readily observable and measurable parameters).  These are strongly influenced by the expectations to fit in and succeed there.  Sometimes those expectations result in constructive, supportive, and motivating behaviors and other times they result in defensive, disruptive and de-motivating ones.

An example

I was engaged in a culture assessment for a transnational manufacturing company.  The company had spent a lot of time and money in strategic planning and wanted to see if they had the organization in place to carry out the plans.  In their favor, they had an active quality system with documented processes and procedures.  They had skilled workers.  They had long-term customers.  They had a caring leader.  But this leader never got around to establishing the organization’s guiding vision, mission or core values.  So as a starting point, we wanted to determine what the current culture of the company looked like and then define what they felt the culture needed to be for the business to succeed going forward.

The organization’s leaders learned that the current culture of the organization IN NO WAY resembled the culture they or the rest of the staff (virtually everyone participated in this assessment) believed they needed to maximize their effectiveness.  Instead of a culture that would promote achievement, innovation, openness, teamwork and taking risks, the data showed that their current culture promoted autocratic decision-making, arguing, competition amongst the staff, avoiding responsibility and exerting power over each other.  Talk about a distorted echo!  Even more startling was that this current culture had been replicated at virtually every location and through every functional department surveyed.  If anything, this company was consistent!  They didn’t intentionally set out to create the existing culture reflected in the assessment data, but by what was rewarded or, at least tolerated, that culture became ingrained and propagated.

What was the impact of that current culture?  Conflicting messages about the direction of the business, high employee turnover in key areas, loss of customer base, problems being hidden from view, difficult relations with suppliers and playing it safe were among top items on the list.  Employees described working for the company as being akin to “riding on a roller coaster that constantly changed directions.” Given that there were no guiding principles in place at the firm, it was no surprise to find out that clarifying the organization’s mission was the single largest change driver for them.  The data surfaced some specific things to work on, allowing us to create a roadmap towards a culture that reflected where they wanted to take the company.

So what do you do? 

First, be clear about what you are trying to build in your organization.  Make sure the vision of the future (“the what”) is supported by the mission (the “how”) and that the value system you want drives the behaviors you need to get you where you want to go.  Then create systems and structures that will propagate and reinforce those messages.  Be clear about what gets rewarded.  Pay attention to how things get done, who you hire, how you communicate, and the kinds of resources that are made available to help the staff succeed.  In an analogous way, houses are built from plans and blueprints.  Before you even break ground, you pretty well know what the finished product is supposed to look like and you know what has to be done in what order to get you there.

Periodically listen carefully for that echo.  Ask questions of your staff.  Talk with customers.  Do an assessment.  Are you getting back what you thought you should be getting back?  Are there any surprises in that echo?  Did the message get out to everyone? Is the message reinforced by setting examples and creating systems that are in alignment with it?

Who else is listening?

The thing about organizational echoes is that you’re not the only one listening.  Certainly, your employees can hear them.  By virtue of the quality of your products and services and what you’re like to deal with, so can your customers and suppliers.  And so can your industry peers and competitors.  And it’s likely people will be asking themselves questions like, “Do I want to continue to work here?”  Do I want to continue to do business with them?”  “How can I exploit their distorted echo to take away their best employees and customers and improve my own business?”

Keeping your competitive edges are as important and challenging as ever.  Don’t give yours away like so many words spoken into a mountain canyon.  Even if you’re not listening – others are.


Copyright 2004.  Kodyne, Inc.  All rights reserved worldwide.