Bob Sutton on the Otis Redding Problem
Stanford Professor Bob Sutton has a terrific post on what he terms the Otis Redding Problem with respect to companies instituting too many metrics. As one of my former colleagues used to say, "There can be only one thing that's MOST IMPORTANT," and the Otis Redding Problem points this out. Here's Bob Sutton:
Recall the line from his old song: Sitting By the Dock of the Bay, “Can’t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I’ll remain the same.” That’s the problem with holding people, groups, or businesses to too many metrics: They can’t satisfy or even think about all of them at once, so they end-up doing what they want or the one or two things they believe are important or that will bring them rewards (regardless of senior management's strategic intent).”
There are lots of reasons that this problem happens in organizations, but – at least based on those I’ve studied and worked with – four jump-out:
1. There are too many groups that have medium power – so everyone gets a metric to show that what they do is important, but no one has the power to kill a metric.
2. Senior management does not understand its strategy, especially is strategic priorities. So they treat everything as moderately important – the result is that employees can justify virtually anything they do as important.
3. Senior management does not really understand what the organization’s actual business model is or what it should be. This means that they can’t figure out the few key elements that drive many things, so they keep adding more and more items to the list in hopes that they will figure it out eventually.
4. Senior management can’t say no. Even if they can articulate their priorities, senior management lacks the courage to make enemies. So they cave-in when people act hurt or threaten to leave the organization unless metrics are added that make them and their kind look important. The result is that everyone ends-up being unhappy. At one organization I worked with, there was endless argument over compensation because each general manager would focus on the subset they performed well on and ignore those metrics where performed did poorly. Everyone seemed to be #1 at something and everyone used that as argument that they deserved more compensation.
Leaders who lack such courage might recall the old Bill Cosby quote: “I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” Otis Redding’s solution was to “remain the same” because he couldn’t please 10 different people. That is a rational response to a bad system. Things get even worse when you try to please everyone – at least Otis pleased himself!
I've highlighted the two that I've experienced the most often in my career.
Few things have more of a damaging impact on an organization than not having a clear strategy and/or the ability to tie what you actually do on a day-to-day basis to the strategy. When there is lack of direction coming from the top, when there's general lack of understanding on what the organization is about, guess what? The more ambitious and motivated employees will make their own best guess about what they should be doing and go ahead with it - whether it makes any strategic sense of not, and whether they have any real chance of succeeding or not.
I'd need more than my fingers and toes to count all the projects I've worked on that seemed to "make sense", seemed to tie to our understanding of the strategy, seemed to be the right thing to do....but which turned out to be wheel spinning or dead-enders. At least on these projects, we were trying to do something. Naturally, I was generally able to get these projects on the list of metrics I was goaled on - if there was such a list - with little or no management push back. It was always the more metrics the merrier. This would seem to speak to Bob's point four, but it was never a matter of stomping and threatening if "my" metrics weren't added. It was more of "let's not stifle any initiative" which stemmed from managers not understanding the strategy, etc.
What's more typical is people going the full Otis Redding route: "remain the same." They keep on doing what they're used to doing, i.e., whatever's in their comfort zone - whether it makes strategic or tactical sense or not.
Employees need to regularly hold up what they're doing to the cold clear light of the strategy and see if it has anything to do with it. But this implies that there is a cold, clear strategy out there. As often as not, there isn't.