Is Your Company’s Autopilot Holding You Back?

Oftentimes I hear this managerial conundrum, where companies have all their ducks in a row and yet the results are not there. 

The metrics to reach have been established, the procedures to follow have been defined, and the teams are properly staffed to execute the plan – so why are we not observing significant progress? Why does it feel like performance is plateauing?

I had once been told that every day felt like being on autopilot. Every day felt the same, apart from the fact that there is a different date on the calendar.

And as much as we like the idea of cruising toward our destination, our autopilot is usually relatively primitive, which is one of the reasons why we are not (or slowly) progressing.

Imagine trying to bike with your handlebar locked in place. You set your sight on the end of the road – a straight line, that should be a piece of cake, right?

Well, if you are tempted to go through this experiment, make sure to wear a helmet!

Truth be told, even if you have to go in a straight line, you are likely to fall pretty rapidly with the handlebar blocked. 

The reason? Feedback.

As soon as we start biking, we have to maintain our balance. To do so, we receive a tremendous amount of feedback: the gravity, the state of the road, the vibrations in our arms, and the list goes on. We then use these elements to adjust our stance dynamically, slightly moving our handlebar to the left and right while going “straight”.

Using feedback, we are steering.

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Unfortunately, most corporate autopilots only take in fixed instructions (such as metrics and procedures to follow) and don’t know how to handle feedback.

Many organisations are not prepared to receive feedback. Or when it is captured, nothing is done with it – so it is as if it was ignored.

Take companies with a short-term time horizon, like a listed company. They are constantly under the pressure of analysts and their quarterly reviews. They are heavily incentivised to hit their metrics to maintain share prices. So when these companies receive feedback that could delay, force them to change course and adapt to the cost of not meeting these quarterly targets, it is incredibly tempting to discard the feedback.

Similarly, government organisations with an infinite-term time horizon don’t have reasons to care much about feedback or to implement it successfully since their performance is often decorrelated with their funding. No matter how well or poorly we do, there will always be a tomorrow – so why bother?

And, as we ignore feedback, we keep running everything as we did yesterday. 

We have the metrics and don’t assess whether they are right. 

We have the procedures and don’t check if they are effective. 

We have the teams and don’t give them the ability to perform.

Congratulations, your corporate autopilot is activated!

So how to take back control? How to activate these feedback loops and incorporate their insights into our daily activities?

At an individual level, one of the main reasons that lead to feeling stuck in a pernicious Groundhog Day is that we have often lost sight of our values. We do things under the duress of extrinsic motivations rather than because they bring us fulfilment and joy.

Taking the time to reflect on our values, what is fueling and energising us, what we want more of, allows us to align meaning and actions, ultimately pushing us forward.

But if it works wonders for individuals, it is usually ineffective for companies – primarily due to poor implementation and one fundamental misunderstanding.

Performance is plateauing? Results are stagnating? This must be a ‘culture’ issue; quick, let’s define our values! 

Two days of ‘executive leadership workshop’ later, five keywords have been picked up and will now be on posters in every room of every office. This is our corporate flavour of the stale ‘Live – Love – Laugh’ we can see hanging in most kitchens.

Unshockingly, a few months later, results are still stagnating (or they have declined). 

How come? After all, we picked the values “dedication” to encourage everyone to go the extra mile and “innovation” to become leaders in our field – this should have given us an edge.

Values can mean different things to different people. 

By themselves, they are subject to interpretation and can lead to confusion. For example, if I’m working on something innovative and yet not delivering anything, am I not being dedicated to my job?

Corporate values need context.

We can provide context by sharing stories. We can also define principles. The latter is not to be mistaken with procedures. 

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Procedures are put in place to minimise risks and maximise efficiency. They kill variability by simultaneously “robotising” individuals, removing all sense of accountability and circumventing judgement. If something goes wrong, we can easily dodge blame with a deflecting: “I was just following the process.” 

On the contrary, principles allow room for personal judgement and, in exchange, call for accountability. They offer guidance and a default response to a defined situation while giving a practical interpretation of the company’s values.

If we don’t know any better, we can follow the principle, which is a sort of best practice. As we get more experienced, we can choose to deviate from the default behaviour if we believe it will provide a better outcome.

The critical part is to give feedback on the result of this deviation from the principle. If we get poor results, then it allows others to learn from our experiment. Inversely, we can alter and improve the principle if we get remarkable outcomes.

Some of you might have recognised a methodology championed by the renowned founder of the Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, Ray Dalio. Over his tenure, he used principles as an incremental learning method which elevated performance tremendously. 

Now, you might ask, what does a principle look like?

Let’s say one of your company’s values is “trust”. How does that translate into daily life? What does it mean practically?

An example might be to remove all approval processes for office equipment that are less than $10,000. 

I know some managers spilled their coffee reading this (sorry – but not sorry). This could open the door to many cases of abuse. Even some cash flow issues. That’s Pandora’s Box; close it now!

Yet, you could associate this with the principle: “spend as you would do for yourself”, which implicitly means: “we trust you to do the right thing for the company”, “we trust your judgement”, and we will empower you.

The company is now living and practising one of its core values.

Yes, there might be some abuses – but on the other hand, you are now giving autonomy to individuals to decide what they need to perform properly. 

Engineers have different requirements than sales – but no one has to deal with this complexity and define a one-fit-all procedure. No more time spent sending approval requests to management. No more back and forth between your department, finance and procurement – which means people can focus on other tasks, and employees can get their equipment faster (and be more productive sooner).

The gains from this principle might heavily absorb the costs of a few misbehaviours. If not, it simply means some adjustments are needed.

To your success,

Lison xX

PS: If someone has forwarded this to you, you can subscribe here.

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Whenever you are ready, here are a few ways I can help:

  • If you are about to make an important decision for yourself (or your team) – let me be part of your inner circle and work towards your success, book a call with me to discuss this.
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Lison Mage

I help clever individuals and teams conquer overthinking and perform at their full potential. Together, we can go from a place of uncertainty and being paralyzed by doubt to gaining clarity on your current situation, where you want to go, and how to get you there!


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