Over the course of my career in organization development and particularly large systems work, the word valentine has been used in unique ways. The valentine exercise, as it is often called, is used as a feedback platform when organizations need to change how they change.
The Gallup organization studied employee engagement and the results were surprising and disturbing in many ways. In the United States, only one-third of employees are what Gallup calls “fully engaged” at work. This means only one-third of all employees find meaning at work, love their jobs, and strive toward meaningful contribution every day. Sixteen percent of employees are “actively disengaged” which means they describe their work as miserable and admit to sometimes trying to sabotage their co-workers and companies. The remaining 51 percent are “not engaged,” meaning they’re showing up, collecting a paycheck and going home as quickly as possible. More than half of all employees are disengaged at work.
One of the biggest drivers of employee engagement is, you guessed it, when leaders provide effective feedback. While on average only 30 percent of employees are fully engaged, at the highest performing companies, more than 70 percent of employees are fully engaged. Effective feedback loops are key to business results and the valentine exercise is one I have seen used in powerful ways over the years. This process was used successfully at Ford, Shell and Sears, when these large companies were at a crossroads. This HBR article describes what happens in many large organizations as organizational drift.
“As a result of age, size, or competitive intensity, most organizations exhibit a deterioration in vital signs that is inconsistent with—in fact, often destructive to—their ambitions and purposes.
The members of start-up organizations have a sense of individual and collective power; they feel they can make a big difference in the pursuit of the goals they all share. Employees identify with the enterprise as a whole; alignment and informal teamwork are commonplace. When conflicts occur, people handle them directly and almost never allow them to interfere with getting things done. The whole organization is open to learning; trial and error are the norm.
As organizations grow older and larger, however, the vigor of these four vital signs deteriorates. Instead of power, people often develop a sense of resignation in response to seemingly insurmountable obstacles or to lack of support from their superiors in the daily hassle of getting things done. As organizations become more complicated and demanding, people strive to carve out private patches of turf where they can exercise responsibility, protect themselves, and keep the world at bay. When it comes to their identity, therefore, employees lose their sense of teamwork and alignment with the entire enterprise and begin to seek the safety of their particular profession, union, function, team, or location.”
The Harvard Business Review concluded, “In all three organizations, the 800-pound gorilla that impaired performance and stifled change was culture” and the valentine exercise was one way to right the ship, correct the drift, and chart a new course.
The Valentine Exercise in A Nutshell
These sessions typically began with a high-level presentation of the vision and key strategic initiatives for the organization. My first exposure to the work of Kathleen Dannemiller and Alan Davenport was at Ford when they brought together 130-person management team. This was unprecedented as the optimal group size for addressing complex change was historically around 8 people. I observed these high numbers for large systems change again when Gary Jusela did similar work with Dannemiller and Davenport at Boeing.
The entire organization does not need to be present but having the whole system represented is critical. Each function, meeting in small groups, would then write succinctly what issues they have had with other participating teams in terms of inhibiting productivity or customer service or any other area of their operational responsibility. Eventually every team would receive 4-6 valentines and they would then sift through them to determine a few that were most important. The team then spent the next few hours detailing how they would act to implement a solution for the conflict and who the person on the team would be that was accountable for communicating the delivery of the solution. They also determined a committed partner from the team that sent the valentine and would share responsibility for successful execution of this detailed plan.
Back in the large group, the person assigned the action that received the valentine for their team presented a plan while asking the committed partner to also stand. A tense negotiation would unfold as the beginning of the bridge was built during the powerful exchange.
During The Audit They Got It!
I used to think it was satirical to call these conflict resolution sessions valentines because I never associated a valentine with feedback that is hard to hear, at least not a good valentine. However, something masterful always unfolded in these sessions as robust resolutions were forged, and organizations were palpably stronger at the systems level due to this exchange. It is not that implementation of solutions were satisfied in one offsite session, but something deeper could be felt unfolding in these exchanges. As lower-level managers were given line of site to strategic business priorities and saw how their team affected the high-level direction of the organization during this “audit” they got it! By seeing how their work stream impacted the whole, paired with knowledge of current initiatives, they were bought in and therefore more open and receptive to changing systems in their wheelhouse when necessary for the health of the larger organization.
It is a twist on a traditional valentine but perhaps even more genuine for leaders at all levels. Something that helps us see things we can’t see ourselves, but we are better for it, is sometimes hard to accept but always worth hearing and taking to heart!
I have Great Expectations for organizations of all sizes, and I will close with the words of Charles Dickens this Valentine’s Day as they relate to organizational change: “I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”
Stay tuned for next months’ blog about spiders and starfish and how leaders can build an organization so resilient that valentine exercise sessions are obsolete because communication channels and are open and visibility is clear in all directions.