Today, I met with K to flesh out the goals of our video clip, the one that will publicize the Green BioPharma program as the latest development to the company’s sustainability program. What do we want viewers to know and feel after they’ve seen it? We were trying to come up with a good list of answers to that question. At one point, I asked K why she thought sustainability at the company was so great when she first learned about it, and we massaged it a bit to become the basis of one of the goals of the video. Later this early evening, we had another long conversation about an industry meeting that we’re leading tomorrow. K felt stuck a little with her presentation and the agenda, and we had a great discussion which I think helped her break free of her mental block.
I love this kind of intellectual problem-solving.
The other day at our steering committee meeting we presented a simple idea: a contest for the best recycling or waste reduction idea in our manufacturing and process development divisions. In a short time, others piled on and our original idea was greatly improved. People suggested that finalists make a presentation to the jury composed of senior leadership: a great way to get leadership endorsement and involvement on the winning idea, making it more likely it’ll be implemented, and a great way to drum up interest as applicants will have a chance to present to senior leaders. It was really, really great because I think our steering committee, not yet a year old, has finally gelled and people are really engaged. This is the sort of thing that I find deeply satisfying and inspiring: how getting our minds together can markedly improve our ideas. If there’s anything that I know I want to do in the future, it’s this kind of work.
Finally today, I got my manager and colleagues to endorse a course of action I’d like us to take. One of the vendors I employ performs laboratory inspections to make sure that lab employees are complying with waste management regulations: correct labels, correctly storing and managing their waste, etc. A problem is that often we have to change the requirements. Usually we don’t do a good job of updating the labs on these changes. But our inspection team starts to look for them, and dings people for missing them. Not very fair if they didn’t know about the changes when they first came about. I put together a procedure that makes this process more explicit and transparent. Later this week I’m going to present the new procedure to other colleagues, and to the lab folks. I think this will help our lab employees be more successful at complying with requirements as they evolve, and make them happier to boot.
In my intro I mentioned that I really wanted to get inside the black box of the company: how does a company make decisions? Who, actually, and how? I’ve become passionate about organizational development.
I don’t remember exactly when, but just when I was starting my career at Genentech, I ran across a great little book at a garage sale called The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner et al.
It’s very user-friendly; each page is presented like a single-paged Powerpoint slide. The book teaches basic techniques about how to run meetings, and to poll participants, on how to decide, how to get quiet people to talk, how to get loud people to shut up so we can hear the quiet people. I loved it, it made so much sense to me. I was moved to have an informational interview with Sam, who was incredibly gracious. I took a couple of his workshops on facilitation and organizational development, and I’m still in contact with him twelve years later.
My academic program did a fabulous job of bridging the two worlds of “hard” science and engineering on the one hand with social sciences and humanities on the other. One thing that it missed, that I didn’t realize till I started working in the “real” world, is the role of organizational learning or organizational development. True, you can take an org behavior class in the business school. But the simple practice, not theories, of helping an organization learn or change is rarely the topic of research or teaching. As a result, how many bright MBAs start work with great ideas but run into invisible walls when trying to implement them?
In the academy, one can explore almost anything, but rarely the way it itself is organized, at least not in a practical way. It works well: the body of human knowledge continues to grow. One of my committee members started with mining engineering, and ended up researching electric vehicles. A great example of how the freedom of tenure allows one’s curiosity and intellect to evolve. But academia doesn’t seem to have any motivation to modify or improve accountabilities or incentives, or otherwise promote different kinds of behavior and decision-making. These are the kinds of questions that companies often ask and act upon, which I find fascinating.