In my mastermind group, an HR consultant happily announced she just concluded a project standardizing job descriptions across a multi-thousand-person company. In that moment, she named herself my nemesis. For my job is helping people rise to their own strengths, and step outside the neat little boxes that give such comfort to the Standardizers of the World.
Everyone is forever asking how to motivate people. You can’t. All you can do is get out of their way. You want them to innovate? Break the mold and do something truly awesome? Standardized job descriptions aren’t the answer. Helping each person bring their unique strengths to bear is much more likely to produce great things. (Imagine if Patent Office clerk Albert Einstein had limited himself to his job description.)
The job market for CEOs and, indeed, executives places great stock in the notion that every Leader is a unique gem, whole clear sight and bold touch will transform an organization to greatness. We believe so deeply that we grant multi-million-dollar salaries in recognition of Executive Uniqueness.
Yet these very people diligently reduce everyone else to standardized job descriptions, salary bands, hours and schedules people work, and often even the clothes people wear. Then they complain that people show too little initiative, don’t think outside the [standardized] box they’ve so graciously been given, and won’t create a culture of innovation. No one seems to ponder that maybe we’re reaping exactly, precisely what we sow: the least common denominator. It’s easy to administer people if we treat them as interchangeable widgets, but then that’s all we get–the parts that are interchangeable.
It’s very easy to say that it makes things easier to manage to standardize job descriptions. And it does. It also sets up expectations, development plans, hiring processes, and a culture that values the standard, not the unique. In this age of “disruptive innovation” and “outsourcing” and yet the latest fad-of-the-month management concept, we’ve pretty much forgotten the basics.
Companies are built of people. No matter how many systems you put in place, it’s the people who endure and make those systems run smoothly. Most importantly, it’s the people who adapt those systems to changing circumstances. And when you treat people as interchangeable, standardized parts, you get people who like to have a known, predictable place in the world. It’s simple selection. People who are mavericks, who push the envelope, who are greatly creative likely won’t love working for a place where those qualities aren’t valued by the systems.
As the business world reaches an absurdly frantic pace, businesses–indeed, whole economies–claim they will thrive on innovation. But innovation comes from people who can move beyond the everyday assumptions into whole news realms. For example, people who step outside the notion that job descriptions must be standardized. You know “Gore Corporation,” the makers of Gore-Tex? They don’t have a hierarchy or job descriptions. Their facilities are self-organizing. They limit themselves to about 140 people (sociologists say that’s the largest group that can self-organize) and things run smoothly. They’ve realized that our notions of hierarchy and standardization aren’t natural laws, they’re just beliefs we’ve adopted and never questioned.
Look around you. Look at your leaders. Look at your peers. Look at your family, your children, and those around you. Where are they playing roles that don’t suit them? Where are they squashing their own strengths, or wasting endless energy trying to be something they aren’t? Is there any way you can help them? Find opportunities where their strengths can produce the most value. Give them chances to shine where they’re good. And where they’re not, rather than expecting excellence, rearrange things so they can refocus on the places they can real shine.
First, Break All the Rules by the Gallup organization studied millions to discover that success comes from a focus strengths, not weaknesses. Weaknesses are best handled with alliances and systems. You’ know a great idea person, who sucks at details? No sweat. Pair them with a details-oriented implementor and their team will be unbeatable. The energy that could move a weakness from “poor” to “average” can just as easily move a strength from “good” to “superb.”
Oh, and by the way, you’re a people too. Look in the mirror and do the same for yourself. Create a life and career where you can hone your strengths and let others do what you don’t do well. When you’ve organized your life around your excellence, not only do you get more done (the Holy Grail of the 21st century), but you’ll also become the Architecht of a fun, exciting, fulfilling life. And that’s a worthwhile job description.