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   What do underachieving
   businesses need most?
                                   Demand Better
                                   Results—And Get Them
     Not a new process or          by Robert H. Schaffer
   management theory—
  but rather, management’s
  unwavering commitment
       to performance

      New sections to
     guide you through
         the article:
     • The Idea in Brief
     • The Idea at Work
  • Exploring Further . . .

                                   PRODUCT NUMBER 4495
T H E   I D E A   I N     B R I E F                                                                   Demand Better Results—And Get Them

                  T      key to a company’s turnaround is typi-
                  cally not some labor-saving technology, corpo-
                                                                                   The capacity to demand better results seems
                                                                                   like such a simple thing, but in fact it may be
                  rate restructuring, or change in personnel. All                  the most universally underdeveloped manage-
                  these factors can be beneficial, but the critical                ment skill. Managers must overcome psycho-
                  event is usually something more fundamental:                     logical obstacles and directly confront areas of
                  it’s when management becomes committed to                        organizational resistance. Clearing away these
                  expecting higher levels of performance.                          stumbling blocks is no mean feat, but the organi-
                                                                                   zational focus that results can be astonishing.

T H E   I D E A   AT       W O R K

                  A          that significant gains are possi-
                  ble can be a threatening experience for man-
                                                                                    1. Select the goal. Start with an urgent but
                                                                                       circumscribed problem—say, consistently
                  agers. It increases the risk of resistance from                      failing to meet quality specifications.
                  subordinates. Some managers worry about
                  being resented or rejected by subordinates;                       2. Specify the minimum expectation of
                  others worry about being embarrassed if the                          results. The more specific and measurable
                  ambitious goals aren’t achieved. Moreover, not                       the expectations, the better.
                  meeting the goals raises the prospect of having
                  to take drastic (read: unpleasant) action.
                                                                                     One company was losing money because it
                  These worries function like stealth weapons.                       couldn’t decide whether to be a mass producer
                  The psychological damage they cause goes                           or an engineer of tailored solutions. The compa-
                  unnoticed because managers haven’t articulated                     ny’s president finally broke through the logjam
                  the fears to begin with. What’s more, various                      by directing the senior managers to select from a
                  avoidance mechanisms connive to perpetuate                         dozen new products the one they agreed would
                  the illusion that significant performance                          most likely be profitable and conform to their
                  improvement is impossible:                                         vision of the business. After sketching out a mar-
                                                                                     keting plan and pricing policy for this product,
                    • rationalization. Through this process, man-                    the senior managers were instructed to make
                      agers are able to convince themselves                          generalizations from their efforts that the com-
                      they’ve done all they can do to create high                    pany could use to clarify its direction.
                      expectations—and that employees are
                      already doing their best.                                     3. Communicate the expectations clearly.
                    • focusing on procedural improvements.
                                                                                       Make sure everyone understands not just
                      This enables managers to hope for better                         that the expectations should be met, but
                      results without having to demand them of                         that they must be met.
                      employees.                                                    4. Monitor the project, but delegate responsi-
                    • framing ambitious goals in vague terms.                          bility. Assign responsibility for achieving
                      Here, managers articulate the goal of per-                       each goal to one person. Specify how progress
                      formance improvement without clearly                             will be determined and reported to you.
                      lodging the ownership of the task in
                                                                                    5. Expand and extend the process. Once
                                                                                       you’ve successfully met the initial set of
                  Powerful as these avoidance mechanisms are, a                        demands, repeat the process with new or
                  five-step strategy can help you overcome them:                       enlarged goals.

                  HBR OnPoint © 2000 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Managers can break through the barriers that keep their perfor-
mance expectations too low.

Demand Better Results –
And Get Them
by Robert H. Schaffer

   One of the most dramatic, large-scale productivi-                          performance had not been placed on the company’s
ty improvements I am familiar with occurred in a                              management team.
regulated public utility – an industry not noted for                            Most organizations have the potential for as great
such performance breakthroughs. In the early                                  – or greater – gains. Very few, however, ever realize
1960s, this company’s productivity was about aver-                            them. Few managers possess the capacity – or feel
age among 20 similar companies in North America,                              compelled – to establish high performance-improve-
as both work load and work force were rapidly ris-                            ment expectations in ways that elicit results. Indeed,
ing. In 1966, the trend shifted: the work load con-                           the capacity for such demand making could be the
tinued to rise, but the number of employees began                             most universally underdeveloped management skill.
to drop. By 1968, the company’s productivity
ranked among the best in its industry. The differ-                            Why Demands Aren’t Made
ence between average and best performance was
worth savings of more than $40 million a year –                                 Pushing for major gains can appear very risky to
well over one-third of its net income at that time.                           managers, and these perceived risks exert tremen-
   What produced this gain? Neither new technolo-                             dous inhibition on performance expectations. If the
gy nor labor-saving machinery was a significant fac-                          newly installed manager asserts that significant
tor. No significant change in management took                                 gains are possible, he may threaten his predecessor
place. The company was not reorganized. Nor were                              and current boss – and thus arouse their antago-
programs incorporating management by objectives,                              nism – by implying that they had settled for less.
organizational development, mathematical model-
ing, or management information systems responsi-
ble for the shift. The key to the turnaround was a                            Since 1960, Robert H. Schaffer has headed a Stamford,
                                                                              Connecticut, management consulting firm that bears his
decision by the principal operating officer (with
                                                                              name. Through the Association of Management Consul-
backing from the chief executive) that the company                            tants, he also trains consultants. In 1988, Harper Business
must and could make substantial productivity                                  Books published his book The Breakthrough Strategy:
gains. Naturally, many supportive programs and ac-                            Using Short-Term Successes to Build the High-Perfor-
tivities were necessary to translate this determina-                          mance Organization. For the reissuance of this article,
tion into results. These activities, however, would                           which originally appeared in HBR November-December
have produced little if a clear demand for improved                           1974, he has written a retrospective commentary.

Copyright © 1991 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.                         DRAWINGS BY MICHAEL WITTE
         Too much support and understanding can keep expectations – and performance –unnecessarily low.

Even if he has been in the job for a while, he sub-       adopt the model of the manager portrayed by the
jects himself to the same estrangement.                   human relations movements of the 1950s and
   Great demands increase the risk of resistance          1960s – the loving, understanding, and supportive
from subordinates and of the embarrassment of fail-       father figure. The model of the stern, demanding
ing to reach ambitious goals. Managers who set un-        manager was portrayed as a villain.
usually high demands may be challenged by others.            Although many exponents of human relations
They must therefore be sure of their facts and clear      did emphasize the importance of high expectations
about directions. The struggle to upgrade perfor-         and tough goals, managers frequently overlooked
mance may expose their uncertainties, weakness-           those parts of the message. They saw that high ex-
es, and inadequate knowledge. More modest expec-          pectations for performance could lead to psycholog-
tations reduce all these risks.                           ical rejection by subordinates. The prevailing opin-
   In addition, establishing well-defined and un-         ion was that by adopting the right techniques,
equivocal expectations for superior performance           managers could avoid confronting subordinates on
creates the worry that the failure of subordinates to     performance expectations and asking them to pro-
produce will require drastic action. Musing out           duce much more than the managers estimated they
loud about a long-needed productivity improve-            were likely to give anyhow.
ment effort, the vice president of a manufacturing           Are managers conscious of the discrepancy be-
operation asked, “What would happen if we set spe-        tween the performance they are requiring and what
cific targets and my people didn’t meet them? I’d         might be possible? To an extent, they are. Most
have to do something – maybe let some of them go.         sense that their organizations could achieve more,
Then I’d have to bring in people I trusted even less.”    but their vision is obstructed. To avoid the uneasi-
Before even determining whether he could create           ness and guilt brought on by too clear a vision of
an effective strategy, this man was paralyzed by the      performance gaps, managers unconsciously employ
anticipated consequences of failure.                      a variety of psychological mechanisms for obstruct-
   The fear of rejection is also a powerful motivator.    ing the truth.
Asking subordinates to do much more than they as-            Evasion through rationalization. Managers may
sert they can do runs the risk, at least in a manager’s   escape having to demand better performance by
mind, of earning their resentment, if not their dis-      convincing themselves that they have done all they
like. Many managers have been only too eager to           can to establish expectations. For instance, they

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW   March-April 1991                                                                  5
                                                          DEMAND BETTER RESULTS

may claim that everyone already knows what must           often fail to impose greater demands and expecta-
be accomplished. When asked whether they have             tions on their employees. And when managers do
made the goals clear to their people, these managers      try to demand more, their subordinates are quick to
respond with a variation of “If they don’t know           point out that they are doing all that can be done.
what the goals of this outfit are by now, they don’t      Thus all levels of management may share the illu-
belong in their jobs.”                                    sion of operating at the outer limit when, in fact,
  Sincere in their belief that their subordinates are     they are far from it.
doing their best, managers frequently look for sub-          To avoid having to impose new requirements on
standard performance elsewhere. Do the following          subordinates, a manager may decide to take on the
statements sound familiar?                                job herself. She reassures herself that her people
                                                                          are already overloaded or that they
                                                                          lack some qualification that she pos-
Managers look elsewhere for                                               sesses. At the other extreme is the
                                                                          manager who covers up his reluc-
substandard performance when                                              tance to make demands with tough-
                                                                          ness, gruffness, or arbitrariness. He
they believe that their people are                                        may threaten or needle subordinates
                                                                          without actually specifying require-
doing the best they can.                                                  ments and deadlines for results. In
                                                                          the folklore of management, such
                                                                          toughness of manner is equated with
  “We can reduce back orders, but you’re going to         a preoccupation with achievement.
have to pay for plenty of overtime.”                         Reliance on procedures. Managers can avoid the
  “If you want us to cut inventories any further, be      necessity of demand making by putting their chips
prepared for delayed shipments.”                          on a variety of management programs, procedures,
  “Ever since they trimmed our maintenance bud-           and innovations that they hope will produce better
get, we haven’t been able to keep this plant operat-      results. But while such mechanisms may help an
ing properly.”                                            organization respond to demands, they are no sub-
  Performance improvements always seem to call            stitute for good management.
for an expansion of resources or an increase in au-          For example, a manager may try an incentive sys-
thority. Overlooking the possibility of obtaining         tem aimed at seducing subordinates into better per-
greater yields from available resources, managers         formance through the promise of “goodies.” Many

               To avoid asking employees to do more, a manager may take on the extra work herself.

6                                                                        HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW     March-April 1991
top officers are perpetually preoccupied with new        “proving,” as he has asserted all along, that the new
kinds of salary, profit-sharing, and stock-option        stretch goals cannot be attained.
plans and with promotions, titles, and other so-           Ironically, management-by-objectives programs
called incentives. Management assumes that if the        often create heavy paper snowstorms in which
right carrots are held out, managers and employees       managers can escape from demand making. In
will run like rabbits.                                   many MBO programs, as lists of goals get longer
   Infusions of new managerial technology also may       and documents get thicker, the focus becomes dif-
appear to be the key to performance improvements.        fused, bulk is confused with quality, and energy is
Management will install information systems,             spent on the mechanics rather than on results. A
mathematical planning models, industrial engineer-       manager challenged on the performance of her
ing studies, training programs, or any of dozens of      group can safely point to the packet of papers and
other programs offered by technical staff or outside     assert, “My managers have spent many hours de-
consultants. Top management may even reorganize          veloping their goals for the year.”
the company – or parts of it. Perhaps convinced of
the magic in their medicines, even the best-trained      Strategy for Action
staff technicians and management consultants be-
come the unwitting coconspirators of managers               The avoidance mechanisms just described act as
who fail to establish higher performance require-        powerful deterrents to dramatic performance im-
ments for subordinates. In one well-known interna-       provement – but they do not have to. There are ways
tional company, an internal consulting group put to-     to accelerate progress.
gether a mathematical planning model to maximize            If management is willing to invest time and ener-
corporate profits in interdivisional negotiations. But   gy, there is a way it can expect more and get more. I
the president used a flimsy excuse to escape from        have seen the process work in a variety of organiza-
the struggle of requiring his division heads to oper-    tions: in a refinery that expanded its output while
ate within the framework of the models.                  reducing its force by half; in a large, urban teaching
   Attacks that skirt the target. A manager may set      hospital that shifted its mission and direction radi-
tough goals and insist they be achieved – and yet        cally; in a poorly maintained detergent and food-
fail to produce a sense of accountability in subordi-    stuffs plant that became more competitive without
nates. For example, managers often define even sig-      more investment; and in school systems where de-
nificant goals in vague or general terms that make       termined leaders generated innovation despite the
accountability impossible. The R&D director is           inertia of tradition.
told that she “must get more new products out this          The essence of the five-step strategy outlined
year”; the personnel director hears that “turnover       here is to make a successful initial attempt at up-
must be reduced”; management at a transportation         grading expectations and obtaining a response and
company insists that “safety is our number one ob-       then to use this achievement as the foundation for
jective.” When reporting time comes, who can say         increasingly ambitious steps. A series of demands,
whether these objectives have been met?                  initially limited, then more ambitious – each sup-
   Similarly, a manager may establish goals but insist   ported by careful plans, controls, and persistence –
that subordinates can’t be held accountable because      makes success more likely than does a big plunge
they lack the authority to get the job done. The case    involving demands for sweeping changes.
of a petrochemical plant whose product quality was          Select the goal. Start with an urgent problem. Are
well below par illustrates this point. Quality depend-   the costs of one department too high? Is a budget
ed on how well a number of interdependent depart-        being seriously overrun? Is a quality specification
ments processed components. Top management               being consistently missed? Is there a shortfall in
charged department heads to improve operations           meeting a sales quota? Beginning with problems
and monitored these activities, but it failed to hold    like these is essential to generating the feeling that
any individuals responsible for the quality of the end   achievement of the goal is imperative, not merely
product on the grounds that none of them was in suf-     desirable.
ficient control of all the factors. The quality im-         As you select the goal, assemble the information
provements failed to meet expectations.                  needed to frame the performance demand. You
   Sometimes, when pressed by superiors, a manag-        need this information not only to define the need
er will establish expectations in a way that tells       and specify the target but also to convince people
subordinates that he is merely following instruc-        why performance improvement is essential.
tions from above. In fact, he unconsciously hopes           It is also a good idea to sound out your subordi-
that his subordinates’ performance will fall short,      nates on the opportunities for improvement; their

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW   March-April 1991                                                                   7
                                 Retrospective Commentary
       In company after company, I have asked managers        measurable improvement, however, little improve-
    to estimate how much more their organizations             ment occurs.
    would produce if overlapping functions were eliminat-        For example, teams of consultants and social sci-
    ed, if units began to work more in sync with each oth-    entists set up more than 40 different programs in a
    er, if people worked more closely to their real poten-    large international corporation in an effort to make it
    tial, and if they dissipated less energy in political     a “total quality company.” In publicizing this under-
    hassles, self-aggrandizing behavior, useless meetings,    taking, the company proudly asserted that it did not
    and projects that go nowhere. Not surprisingly, almost    expect significant results until the fourth year.
    everyone has selected the “25 to 50%” and the “over          Companies will never achieve competitive perfor-
    50%” categories.                                          mance levels as long as their executives believe that
       With all this latent potential evident, why hasn’t     the right training and development activities, applied
    there been more progress toward meeting the global        with enough diligence, will eventually be rewarded
    competitive challenge? I am as convinced as I was 17      with the right bottom-line results. That is a siren song
    years ago that the principal reason is that “few man-     for all those managers who don’t have the stomach for
    agers possess the capacity – or feel compelled – to       the necessary personal struggle. No combination of
    establish high performance-improvement expecta-           programs and training can inject the required experi-
    tions in ways that elicit results.” This capacity con-    ence, skill, and confidence.
    tinues to be the most universally underdeveloped             Contrary to the mythology, setting high-perfor-
    managerial skill.                                         mance imperatives does not conflict with empower-
       There is no doubt that companies today are more        ing people. Empowerment comes as people rise to the
    impressed with the need for performance improve-          challenge of tough demands and, through effort, meet
    ment than they were in 1974. They are making vast         them. Listen to two Motorola employees describe
    investments in new tools, new plants, and new tech-       their experience on a project to turn out a product for
    nology. They have cranked up massive programs in          Nippon Telephone and Telegraph:
    continuous improvement, customer service, total              “The customer came and told us that nothing ex-
    quality, and culture change that dwarf the efforts of     cept absolute excellence would be accepted. The team
    the 1960s and 1970s. Senior executives, corporate         was really turned on by the challenge of doing some-
    staff groups, university professors, and consulting       thing that was considered impossible.”
    firms have thrown themselves into the battle. The            “People were challenged every day.There was a
    Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award furnishes a       strong drive to succeed in this program. It was the
    national rallying point.                                  most exciting time of my life.”
       If these programs were put under the spotlight,           Those are empowered people.
    however, they would be discovered to serve frequently        To create this kind of environment, managers
    as convenient escape mechanisms for managers avoid-       have to personally experiment with demand making
    ing the struggle of radically upgrading their organiza-   on some urgently needed improvement, like accelerat-
    tions’ performance.                                       ing the development of new products, making far-
       Ironically, the “thinkers” who have invented the       reaching gains in quality, or improving customer
    latest organizational effectiveness strategies unwit-     relationships. Demand making can enliven organiza-
    tingly provide new busywork escapes. By putting so        tions with the challenge of tough goals and the gratifi-
    much emphasis on process and techniques, they             cation that comes with success. Without an ever-
    have slighted the importance of results. Thousands        sharpening demand framework, improvement
    of employees are trained in seven-step problem solv-      programs and activities are merely diversions from the
    ing and statistical quality control; thousands of         real work of making our corporations more competi-
    managers are “empowered”; and thousands of cre-           tive worldwide.
    ative reward and communications systems are in
    place. In the absence of compelling requirements for                                         – Robert H. Schaffer

responses will give you a sense of their readiness. To        shared upper management’s distress over the num-
illustrate, the management at a newspaper publish-            ber of typographical errors in news and advertising
ing plant tried to launch a comprehensive improve-            matter. This information made it possible to design
ment effort. The needs were so great and resistance           an initial project mobilizing supporters of change.
by managers at lower levels so strong that very little          The more participation by subordinates in deter-
was accomplished. Interviews with the composing               mining goals, the better. Managers should not,
room supervisors, however, revealed that they                 however, permit their dedication to the participa-

8                                                                             HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW     March-April 1991
                           DEMAND BETTER RESULTS

tory process to mean abdication of their own re-
   Specify the minimum expectation of results.
Broad, far-reaching, or amorphous goals should be
narrowed to one or two specific, measurable ones.
A manager may protest with “I have too many
things that have to get done to concentrate on only
one or two of them.” But the fragmentation of a
manager’s attention in trying to push them all
ahead can keep her perpetually trapped in the same
defense mechanisms from which she is trying to es-
cape. Whether the first-step goal is a modest ad-
vance or a bold one, it must focus the energy of the
organization on one or two sharply defined targets.
   For example, one company, in treading a path be-
tween mass production and tailored engineering,
was losing money because it could not clarify its
proper place in the market and develop the appro-
priate products. Top management spent hundreds
of hours conferring and making studies to define
the business, the product line, and the pricing strat-
egy. This produced more frustration than progress.
   The undertaking was transformed, however, when
the president asked the executives to select from a
dozen new products the one they agreed would most
likely be profitable and conform to their vision of the
business. He directed them to sketch out a market
plan and pricing policy for this product. They were to
draw from this effort some generalizations that
could be applied to policy determination. The presi-
dent was convinced that the group could produce the
result in a short time. And he was confident that the
initial step would provide insights into the next               Managers escape from making real demands
steps to clarify the company’s direction.                             by hiding out in paperwork.
   Communicate your expectations clearly. Share
with the persons responsible, both orally and in
writing, the determination of the goal, the locus of         Moreover, assign responsibility for achieving
responsibility, the timetable, and the constraints.       each goal to one person, even though the contribu-
Make clear that you are not asking for permission         tions of many may be essential for success. Consider
to set the goal, not securing their advice on whether     the case of a company whose technically complex
the goal is attainable, and not implying that if they     new product was failing to perform as promised.
do not meet the target, you will nevertheless appre-      The president talked about the problem with her
ciate their efforts. Make sure they understand that       marketing, engineering, and manufacturing vice
this is not a goal that should be achieved; it is one     presidents; each claimed that his function was do-
that must be achieved.                                    ing its job and that the problems originated else-
   Monitor the project, but delegate responsibility.      where. After spending much more time than usual
Work-planning disciplines are essential to prevent-       with her subordinates, the president was still able to
ing these projects from fading into the ether. Trying     effect only a slight improvement.
to keep the goals, commitments, and plans only in            The turnaround came when she told her depart-
your mind is sure to undermine the project; rather,       ment heads that it was unwise for her to get in-
have the manager responsible for each goal or sub-        volved in trying to solve the problem. That was
goal provide you with a written work plan of steps        their job. She gave them full responsibility for re-
to be taken to reach the goal. This plan should also      ducing the frequency of unacceptable products to a
specify how progress will be measured and how it          target level within three months. She assigned to
will be reported to you.                                  one executive the responsibility for shaping an in-

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW   March-April 1991                                                                    9
                                                          DEMAND BETTER RESULTS

tegrated plan and for making certain it was ade-          gained confidence that they could respond. Eventu-
quate to achieve the result. In addition, the presi-      ally, many of the sizable savings promised in the
dent requested that each of the other managers pro-       earlier studies were realized.
duce a plan specifying his or her own functions,
contributions, and timetable. After many months           Psychodynamics of Action
of struggling for a solution, the company for the
first time pinpointed a goal to be achieved, estab-          While moving ahead through successive sets of
lished responsibilities for achievement, and intro-       demands, top management has some essential
duced work-planning disciplines to manage the             work to do on the psychological front as well. The
process in an orderly way.                                methods and procedures for negotiating goals with
   When responsibility for results is not explicitly      subordinates are well known; almost overlooked
assigned, subordinates tend to “delegate” it up-          but more significant are the often unconscious ne-
ward, especially if the boss tries to play a helpful      gotiations that managers carry on with themselves.
role in the project. Top management must ensure           They frequently bargain themselves down to com-
that project members clearly understand their re-         fortable expectation levels long before they con-
sponsibility and must not permit them to turn of-         front subordinates. They must learn to share the
fers of help and support into opportunities to pass       risk taking that they want their subordinates to as-
the buck.                                                 sume. They may have to live with the “testing”
   Expand and extend the process. Once some suc-          subordinates subject them to, and they may need to
cess has been achieved on a first set of demands, it      engage in consciousness-raising to make sure they
should be possible to repeat the process on new           do not slip into rationalizations for failing to see
goals or on an extension of the first. This will lead     that their directives are carried out.
to further expansion.                                        Managers often unintentionally ensure that they
   Consider the efforts of a large railway express ter-   will share in the glory of their subordinates’ success-
minal that handled tens of thousands of shipments         es but that lower levels will take the blame for fail-
                                                                          ures. For example, a plant manager
                                                                          had been pressuring the head of main-
When responsibility for results                                           tenance to realign the responsibilities
                                                                          of supervisors and workers as a way to
is not explicitly assigned,                                               increase efficiency. The step would
                                                                          make a number of persons redundant.
people “delegate” it to the boss.                                         Low-level managers and supervisors
                                                                          resisted the move, warning of various
                                                                          disasters that would befall the plant.
daily. It was performing very poorly on many                 The deadlock was broken only when the plant
counts: costs were high, productivity was low, and        manager – through transfers, early retirements, and
delivery deadlines were often missed. Studies had         a very modest layoff – reduced the maintenance
identified the potential for saving hundreds of thou-     force to the level needed after the proposed reorga-
sands of dollars, but those savings were illusive.        nization. Once the most painful step had been tak-
Then the head of the terminal and his boss ceased         en, maintenance management quickly installed the
talking about what was going wrong and all the im-        new structure. Instead of insisting self-righteously
provements that were needed. Instead, they identi-        that the key to action was overcoming the resis-
fied the most crucial short-term goals.                   tance of maintenance management, the plant man-
   From these few they selected one: getting all of       ager assumed the risk and reduced the staff.
one category of shipments out on time each day. It           When managers expect better results, subordi-
was not an easy goal, but it was clear and under-         nates may express their own lack of self-confidence
standable; it could be sharply defined and mea-           in the form of tests. For example, they may contin-
sured, and action steps could be quickly identified.      ue to do exactly what they have been doing, sug-
Meeting that target was the all-important first suc-      gesting that they heard the boss’s words but disbe-
cess that launched the terminal on an ambitious           lieve the message. Or they may imply that “it can’t
improvement program. Once the first traffic cate-         be done.” Some subordinates may advise managers
gory was under control, top management planned a          that for their own good – considering the high risks
series of slightly more ambitious improvement pro-        involved – they should lower their sights. They
grams. Gradually, the terminal’s managers gained          may even withdraw their affection and approval
confidence in asking for more, and their staffs           from their managers.

10                                                                       HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW   March-April 1991
   Such testing is usually an expression of subordi-      You cannot take the first step without worrying
nates’ anxiety over whether they can actually             that your people may say (or think), “Oh, come off
achieve the goal; it is a way to seek reassurance         it. We know who you are!”
from the boss. If the boss is as anxious as they are,
he will be upset by the testing and may react             The Rewards Are There
against what he perceives as defiance. If he has self-
confidence, he will accept the testing for what it is        The strategy for demanding better performance –
and try to help his subordinates deal with the prob-      and getting it – begins with a focus on one or two
lem – without lowering his expectations.                  vital goals. Management assesses readiness and
   In breaking out of productiveness-limiting traps,      then defines the goal. The organization receives
consciousness-raising may be needed to help man-          clearly stated demands and unequivocally stated
agers assess more objectively their approach to           expectations. Management assigns the responsibil-
establishing demands. Consultants – inside or out-        ity for results to individuals, and work-planning
side – can help managers gain the necessary per-          discipline provides the means for self-control and
spective. Or several managers who are working             assessment of progress. Management keeps wired
through the same process may join forces, since           in, tenaciously pushing the project forward. Early
each can be more detached about the others’ behav-        successes provide the reinforcement to shoot for
                                                                          more ambitious targets, which may
                                                                          be extensions of the first goal or addi-
Subordinates may test the boss’s                                          tional goals.
                                                                             There is no limit to the pace or
demands by ignoring them or by                                            scope of expansion. As this process
                                                                          expands, a shift in management style
implying that “It can’t be done.”                                         and organizational dynamics gradu-
                                                                          ally takes place: sophisticated plan-
                                                                          ning techniques, job redesign, closer
ior than about his or her own. They may meet peri-        line and staff collaboration, and other advances will
odically to probe such questions as: Have you ade-        come about naturally.
quately assessed the potential for progress? Have            With clearly conveyed, “nonnegotiable” expecta-
you made the performance requirements clear to            tions and a step-by-step expansion strategy, you may
your associates? Are these goals ambitious enough?        find that the anticipated difficulties and dangers nev-
Are you providing your subordinates with enough           er materialize. If your subordinates are like most,
help? Are you sharing the risks with them? How            they will respond to the higher demands. They will
well are you standing up to testing? Have you de-         be able to accomplish what is expected – or most of
fined goals that at least some of your subordinates       it. And despite a bit of testing or hazing, most of
can see as exciting and achievable?                       them will enjoy working in a more results-oriented
   Perhaps the most important function of con-            environment. Thus you will be creating greater job
sciousness-raising has to do with getting started. It     satisfaction and mutual respect, better relationships
is very difficult to alter the pattern of relationships   among levels, and a multiplied return on the organi-
between superiors and subordinates, especially if         zation’s human and material resources.
they have been working together for a long time.          Product no. 4495

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW   March-April 1991                                                                     11
E X P L O R I N G   F U R T H E R . . .                                           Demand Better Results—And Get Them

                    “Successful Change Programs Begin with             “Turning Goals into Results: The Power of
                    Results” by Robert H. Schaffer and Harvey A.       Catalytic Mechanisms” by Jim C. Collins (Har-
                    Thomson (Harvard Business Review, Janu-            vard Business Review, July–August 1999,
                    ary–February 1992, Product no. 92108)              Product no. 39 60)
                    Schaffer and Thomson apply the basic prem-         Collins’s notion of a catalytic mechanism
                    ise in “Demand Better Results—And Get              serves as an example of a results-based
                    Them” to change initiatives. Most corporate        approach to achieving significant perform-
                    improvement efforts have negligible impact,        ance improvement. A catalytic mechanism is
                    the authors maintain, because they bear little     a tool for shaking up the status quo and gal-
                    relationship to a company’s goals and have         vanizing an organization into action. Take
                    long, indeterminate time horizons. Moreover,       short pay, for example. Granite Rock mobilized
                    they equate measures of activities with actual     its employees to high levels of performance
                    improvements in performance. An activity-          improvement with the simple but radical
                    centered program confuses ends with means,         policy of inviting customers who are not
                    processes with outcomes. It assumes, for           completely satisfied to reduce their invoice
                    example, that once the company has bench-          payment—without returning product. A non-
                    marked its performance against the competi-        bureaucratic means of turning a vision into a
                    tion, assessed customers’ expectations, and        reality, a catalytic mechanism addresses
                    trained its staff in problem solving, that qual-   results instead of processes. However, it often
                    ity, sales, and profits will automatically         produces improvement through unpredictable
                    improve. A results-driven approach, by con-        means—it helps employees achieve greatness
                    trast, bypasses lengthy preparations. Instead,     by doing the unexpected. Moreover, a catalytic
                    the focus is on specific, measurable goals for     mechanism usually redistributes power. Moti-
                    performance improvement that can be                vating employees to act on behalf of the cus-
                    achieved in the short term. Process innova-        tomer and the company as a whole, it gives
                    tions are introduced only as they are needed       people the freedom to do what is right—often
                    for better results. In Morgan Bank’s microfilm     in direct contradiction of senseless rules.
                    department, for example, three shift supervi-      Consequently, certain catalytic mechanisms
                    sors worked together as a unified team—not         might grant employees a little too much lati-
                    for the purpose of enhancing teamwork but          tude for Schaffer’s tastes. Although he writes
                    to figure out how to consistently meet 24-         approvingly of empowerment, his system is
                    hour turnaround deadlines within a five-week       essentially a top-down approach. Finally, the
                    time frame. By committing to measurable            effects of a catalytic mechanism are ongoing.
                    change, managers can not only see results          By contrast, speeches, off-site meetings, and
                    faster, they can also determine more quickly       crises can all serve to mobilize employees’
                    what’s working and what isn’t.                     commitment, but their effects wear off quickly
                                                                       once the excitement dies down.

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