“Structure influences behavior. When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.” — Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization

The CEO of a national retailer was very frustrated. His face grew noticeably redder as he told me how he had set up each store as a profit center and was attempting to hold store managers and their regional managers accountable for profitability. But when a store under-performed, the store manager would show that head office buyers were forcing them into stocking the wrong merchandise for their particular mix of customers. Or they would claim that the marketers hadn’t put together the right campaign for their local market.

When the CEO tried to hold the buyers accountable for the slow moving merchandise, they would blame the stores for not displaying it well enough. Or the buyers would point their fingers at the marketers for not moving the merchandise. When the marketers were confronted, they blamed the stores or the buyers.

Another organization in the office equipment business, had started an intense focus on customer service and quality improvement. As they began finally listening to their customers, they kept hearing how bureaucratic they were. One day a customer in one of the biggest cities they served, pointed out that they had 33 phone numbers in the phone book. “We don’t know whom you should talk to. Here, you figure it out,” is what the company was essentially saying to its customers. “Maybe you should give us an organization chart so we have a fighting chance of getting to the right department,” the customer suggested.

When improvement teams tried to map out some of the service processes in these departments, they had to follow the bouncing customers as callers were sung a few verses of “No, that’s not my department.” Service providers were just as frustrated by all the interruptions from “all those idiotic customers who keep calling us when we’re obviously not the right people for them to talk to.”

Both of these examples illustrate the behavior-shaping role of structure and systems. It’s like the strange pumpkin I once saw at a county fair. It had been grown in a four-cornered Mason jar. The jar had since been broken and removed. The remaining pumpkin was shaped exactly like a small Mason jar. Beside it was a pumpkin from the same batch of seeds that was allowed to grow without constraints. It was about five times bigger. Organization structures and systems have the same affect on the people in them. They either limit or liberate their performance potential.

We’re Getting the Behavior We Designed

“A jillion smart, energetic people submitting to the ‘right’ incentives won’t get you a micrometer closer to the customer unless the dead weight of a vertical hierarchy is lifted — almost entirely — off their backs. There’s no liberation when much more than a semblance of the superstructure remains.” — Tom Peters, Liberation Management

If we are unhappy with the behavior of people on our team or in our organization, we need to take a closer look at the system and structure they’re working in. If they behave like bureaucrats, they’re likely working in a bureaucracy. If they’re not customer focused, they’re probably using systems and working in structure that wasn’t designed to serve the servers and/or customers. If they’re not innovative, they’re likely working in a controlled and inflexible organization. If they resist change, they’re probably not working in a learning organization that values growth and development. If they’re not good team players, they’re likely working in an organization designed for individual performance. Good performers, in a poorly designed structure, will take on the shape of the structure.

Many organizations induce learned helplessness. People in them become victims of “the system.” This often comes from a sense of having little or no control over their work processes, policies and procedures, technology, support systems, and the like. “You can’t fight the system,” they’ll say with a shrug as they give the clock another stare hoping to intimidate it into jumping ahead to quitting time.

These feelings are often amplified by a performance management system that arbitrarily punishes people for behaving like the system, structure, or process they’ve been forced into. “Empowering” helpless people without changing the processes, structure, or systems they work in, is worse than useless. It increases helplessness and cynicism. It’s like “empowering” that seed in the Mason jar to become a full grown, well-rounded pumpkin — but leaving it in the jar.

Improvement planning, process management, teams, skill development, and the like are either constrained or boosted by our organization’s structure and support systems. If they are poorly aligned with our Context and Focus (vision, values, and purpose), strategies, and goals, performance will never come close to its full potential.